Excerpt from Overcome: Stories Of Women Who Grew Up in the Child Welfare System, by Anne Mahon (Great Plains Publications). A book launch will be held Oct. 6 in person at McNally Robinson Booksellers and via a simultaneous YouTube stream. This event is part of Thin Air 2022. To see exclusive video content Anne Mahon has prepared for the festival, visit thinairfestival.ca
I thought a lot about how I’d begin to tell my story, and figured it’s by telling the first memory I have of my mom. It’s not going to reflect good on her, but I think it explains a lot.
ANDREW MAHON PHOTO
Art was a salvation during Jackie’s childhood and is now her livelihood.
I had to have been about four. Me and my mom lived in a house on Logan. We were really poor. I don’t remember even eating in that house. We had a bed with one sheet. I was sitting on the bed with my mom when she just stood up, walked out the front door, onto the porch, and down the stairs to the street. I ran out after her and saw her walk to the curb and stick out her thumb. I had never seen this before, and I didn’t know what was going on. It didn’t take a minute and a car picked her up. And I remember standing there on the steps, in a T-shirt, watching her get into that car and yelling, “Mommy!”
I knew enough to push the chair up to the door and lock it. Not the next day, but the next day after that, my auntie and uncle came there looking for my mom and saw that I was all alone. They were young, just teenagers. They were surprised my mom had left me. But they didn’t know any better, so they left me too.
Again that night, I stayed alone. My mom was gone for three days. She finally came home, drunk, and she brought a party home with her. That’s all I remember. So I guess you could say that my first memory was of her abandoning me. Leaving me to drink. Most of my memories of my mom are centred around alcohol. I don’t really have a memory of her sober. She was always drinking. I still think about that first memory, and cry about it. It’s not me crying for myself now, it’s me crying for that little girl. Like how could somebody do that?
My mom was 15 when she had me. I have two sisters and a brother. I’m the oldest. My one sister is three years younger than me, and the other one is five years younger. And then my brother was born in 1975, because I was six or seven when he was taken. I saw him just once. My mom had been so happy she finally had her boy after she had three girls. I remember her bringing him to visit at my dad’s house where I lived. I didn’t know whose baby it was because he was brand new and my mom was never around much. She was breastfeeding him. He was the only one that she breastfed. But Children’s Aid took him from her as a newborn and adopted him out in the Seventies Scoop.
I never met my biological father. My mom had an arrangement with this man named Joe. He had a relationship with my mom and thought I was going to be his child, but I came out another man’s child. I was dark and had big eyes. I didn’t look anything like Joe. I came out a Portuguese instead of a Hungarian! But it didn’t matter to him. Joe loved me and he raised me. I called him dad. He was an amazing man — not only from what he did for me, but what he did for other people.
Ever since I was about 10, my dad had a restaurant on Main Street. There’s a lot of homeless and a lot of street people down there. He cared for them. Every day my dad gave them a free meal, let them sit in the restaurant and talk and drink coffee. They’d get their bags of tobacco with rolling papers too. You could tell that some of them were mentally ill. I’d get mad sometimes because they’d ask to borrow five bucks from my dad, and I would’ve just saw the same guy borrow five bucks the last week. I’d say, “Dad, he never pays you back. Why do you keep giving him five bucks?”
“Jackie, you might not know this, but God sees everything, and if I say I don’t have five bucks but I have an extra five bucks in my pocket, God knows. And if I already have what I need, and the other guy doesn’t have what he needs…” That’s the way my dad thought.
When my dad would tell his stories he would get so excited he would laugh-cry. It was just the beautiful-est thing. He said, “You know, Jackie, you ask me why I do things for others? It feels good. That’s why.” I’ll never forget that. He’s right; it feels good. Joe died in June 2018. He was 90. I miss him.
My dad cared for me from the time I was born. Fed me, changed my diapers, everything. He fell in love with me, I guess. He was just a very good man. He knew my mom had a drinking problem, and he didn’t want her to lose me. I lived with my dad most of the time. He was amazed by the drawings I did. I started drawing when I was about four. I knew already at that age I was going to be an artist. He bought me art supplies and put me in art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery when I was in Grade 3. He’s the reason I’m here — the reason I’m alive and the reason I’m an artist.
But I also remember that drawing was like my babysitter. I remember, when I was about four, my dad setting everything up on the couch and putting the black, rotary-dial phone on the pillow, then putting out the number to the Hungarian Village. “You phone me here if you need to talk to Daddy. If anything happens, if you need me, if you’re scared.” He showed me how to work the phone. He gave me my colouring books, my paper. I had the smelly markers and this big box of crayons that had so many colours.
“You draw me nice pictures and Daddy will look at them when he comes home, okay?”
I wanted to make my dad proud. I didn’t realize that drawing was my babysitter. There was nobody else to watch me I guess. My dad needed a break too. But it’s kind of sad. Even thinking about that hurts.
My mom was out drinking. Doing her thing. There’d be times where I could be living with my dad and I was so happy. But my mom would come back and take me from him. I think she was trying to make him mad. Who knows? Maybe she was trying to hurt him because she could see how much he loved me.
There was this one time where my mom had me, took me away from my dad. She and I must have been at one of those old hotels on Main Street, because I remember the old glass windows you could open, up high above the door. My mom and her friends were locked out of their room. I don’t know how many times I was pushed over those open windows and dropped into the room so I could open the door for them. I must have been young, man. She was with her friends, there must have been five or six of them, and they were drunk. There wasn’t very much light in there. I don’t know why. I went in the bedroom and my mom told me to go to sleep. They had their chairs in a little circle. I could hear them outside my room crying and I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I opened the door and that’s when I could see they were all cutting their arms — slashing up. I remember I could see red even though it was so dark. That red, it shined. It scared the shit out of me. I closed my door. I don’t remember what I thought, because I was so little. I went back to sleep. But the colour — that vibrant red — is still in my mind. And I remember the suffering and the crying and the moaning. They were all doing it at the same time. I remember wondering why they were so sad.
Anne Mahon is the 14th chancellor of the University of Manitoba, a committed lifelong volunteer and an oral history author.