It was already dark when we set out: a cold December night in the early 1960s, the Montreal streets lovely in the falling snow. Three suburban 12-year-olds on a church youth-group outing, jostling in the back seat of a white Meteor station wagon. My dad drove, with the youth-group leader on the bench-seat beside him, peering at street signs. Stowed in the rear were two hampers, each holding an uncooked turkey, a bag of potatoes and a turnip, a tin of cranberry sauce and a pie. A Simpson’s shopping bag held a few small gifts wrapped in red and green by our mothers. The Town of Mount Royal United Church was delivering Christmas baskets to two families downtown, their names and ours matched by a social welfare agency.
As our car made its way through the snow, bungalows and backyards gave way to bright streets of shops and businesses, and then to a neighbourhood of narrow walk-ups with outdoor staircases and garbage pails on the sidewalk. At the first address, we parked beside a snowbank and clambered out into the chilly air. The falling snow muted the night traffic, but a cat yowled from an alleyway behind the apartments, and we heard someone shout and slam a window down. The five of us climbed to the third floor, kicking snow aside, and watched silently as the door edged open. The man inside was wearing his undershirt. The grown-ups muttered an explanation for our visit and passed the hamper into the dark hallway. The door shut, and our boots clanged back down the metal steps to the car. Not much Christmas cheer there.
At the second house, a few blocks farther south, the stairs spiralled steeply to a well-worn door that had once been painted turquoise. On the balcony at the top of the stairway, a battered baby carriage containing two hockey sticks was filled with snow. Before we had a chance to knock, the door flung open to receive us. We entered a long, poorly lit corridor. Walking behind the others, I peered into dim, overheated rooms crammed with chairs and boxes. A slight whiff of diaper pail mingled with the tang of old cooking oil. Four small children, chattering with each other but too timid to reply to our hellos, emerged from a room with two mattresses on the floor and a calendar on the wall. At the very back of the apartment, the kitchen was brighter, painted yellow. It was friendly chaos as family and visitors jostled for space to stand, smiles all around. My dad placed the hamper on the table and tried a Christmas greeting in his high-school French, to much acclaim. We drank warm ginger ale, offered in unmatched glasses.
It seemed to me astonishing and disturbing that there was no Christmas tree, nowhere to put the presents. They didn’t have a living room. Even to 12-year-old eyes, their clothing and furniture spoke of poverty, the stove and counter stained with old spills, the dish rack sagging. The children, skittering and giggling, were pale and thin, the mother smiling but tired-looking and pale too. Looking around, I felt the slight ache of something undefined.
I stepped aside for one of the boys and bumped into a large cube covered with a dirty brown cloth. He yanked on the cover to show me what was underneath. It was a cage, and in it was a monkey. A real monkey, with a tiny, wiry body and clownish face. The child opened the top of the cage and brought the monkey out. It perched on his hand before bounding to the top of the fridge, then to another child, and then to the father’s shoulder. The visitors from the suburbs watched in wonder.
The thought of the monkey stayed with me as we clattered back down to the car and drove home through the snowy streets. Staring out the car window, I wondered: What would it be like to be poor? Would it be all right if you had a monkey?
These are questions I still haven’t answered to my satisfaction. Our well-meaning suburban church was trying to do some good in a city in which so many still lived below the poverty line. In those days, people in many of the walk-up flats had to share bathrooms down the hall or outside. Looking back, I think the point of the outing was to help us learn compassion. Or perhaps gratitude for our own good fortune. Yet surely the people at our church would have known that two turkeys in the slums of Montreal was hardly a triumph for social reform. Even then, the Quiet Revolution was challenging the charity model of social assistance. The absolute dominance of the churches in health, education and community services would be gone by the end of the decade; eventually, Quebec’s social policies would lead the rest of the country.
I imagine our congregation wanted to teach us that we were the kind of people who would help others. I hope they wanted to show us something of the world outside the chain-link fence that separated the Town of Mount Royal from the rest of Montreal — and to give us a sense that we were connected to that larger world. Worthy objectives.
But thank goodness for the monkey. Without it, we would have gone home filled with dismay at the misfortunes of others, and pleased with ourselves for our kindness. Perhaps we would have remembered to be more thankful as we ate our own turkey dinners a few days later. But nothing would have shifted in our grasp of the world. Nothing would have made us wonder about what makes life good. Instead, because of the monkey, that youth-group outing on a snowy night took us into uncertainty and strangeness, to a place more like the wondrous stable in Bethlehem — surely a better introduction to the world, and a truer source of compassion.
Rev. Martha ter Kuile is the minister at Bloor Street United in Toronto.
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