It's winter in Pickering. Cold. Wet. Grey. The wind moves off Lake Ontario, rips through your jacket and makes a home in your bones.
It's Tuesday. My mother and I drive to Saint Paul's On-The-Hill Church in her rusty old Ford Taurus. I can't remember why I'm home from school, but I do remember rarely wanting to be there. We're on our way to the food bank.
I often went with my mom. I guess it was for practical reasons. She couldn't carry the box of food herself. But I could also feel that she didn't want to go there alone. She was a single mother with two kids on welfare. She was already alone.
For my family, there was a sense of shame in taking from the food bank. I was a kid and even I could understand it. I could feel it. I could see it.
We didn't want charity, especially when we needed it the most.
While other families went to the grocery store for food, we were in the basement of a church for hours. My mother's shame cut so deep that she would remove the food from the box and place it in grocery bags just so the neighbours wouldn't see.
We didn't want charity, especially when we needed it the most. Yet it was the blind kindness of strangers that made the toughest of times a little less daunting. A full belly was one of our first steps towards a fuller life. What was once a source of shame for my family is now an important part of our story.
The Christmas holidays were only a few weeks away. I remember the boxes of food including stuff like pasta, tomato sauce, Campbell's Soup, tea, sugar, canned beans and frozen milk. After we received our box that day, I was invited to pick a present from a pile of wrapped presents. I chose the biggest one they had.
Weeks later, on Christmas morning, I opened the present. My little sister opened hers as well. To my surprise, it was a train set. My first train set. My only train set. Four or five cars were towed by an engine powered by AA batteries. They circled a simple oval-shaped track. Round and round it went, over and over again. Spectacular.
It's easy to slip into forgetting that hunger exists year-round.
Here was a gift that came from someone I never met and someone that I'll never know. I write this several years later, at age 33, closely remembering every little detail. That act of giving held so much weight as a child that I carry it on my back as an adult. Thank you, whoever you are.
It's easy to slip into forgetting that hunger exists year-round, not just during the holidays; it's up all day and awake all night.
Recently, I unloaded trucks of food at the local food bank warehouse. It was my first encounter with the food bank in years. In many ways, being there was painful. It opened old wounds that I thought were closed shut. The food bank was only a small part of my childhood, but is still a big part of my life.
A version of this blog originally appeared on Food Banks Canada.
Matthew Ryan Smith is a writer, curator, and educator based in London, Ontario. He can be contacted at: matthewryansmith733 [at] gmail [dot] com
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