Jean (left) and Ted Waiser (top right), the parents of author and Order of Canada member Bill Waiser, were among those who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War. American journalist Tom Brokaw described it as "the greatest generation." (Photos courtesy Bill Waiser)

Bill Waiser: My parents, the novel coronavirus and what I learned from them

As the 75th anniversary of VE Day is celebrated around the world on Friday amid the COVID-19 pandemic, award-winning author and member of the Order of Canada Bill Waiser (MA'76, PhD'83, DLitt'10) offers his thoughts on what he learned from his parents, both of whom lived through the Great Depression and Second World War.

American journalist Tom Brokaw described it as “the greatest generation” when he talked about those who lived through the Great Depression and then the Second World War.

My parents, Ted and Jean, were among them.

My father, the second-oldest of 11 children, turned 16 in 1929, the start of the Depression. My mother, the third-youngest of six, was 13 at the time. Both came of age during the 1930s.

Before he was 20, my father left home in drought-stricken southwestern Manitoba and rode the rails. He was one of 70,000 single, homeless men travelling the country in search of work.

He spent time in a federal relief camp in British Columbia and helped build the Hope-Princeton highway. Road crews used hand tools as much as possible so that more men could be on the job.

My mother sacrificed her schooling and did what she could to help her family survive.

Unlike today, when governments rush to provide emergency assistance, going on “the dole,” as it was called at the time, was a sign of failure. Any relief assistance was kept to an absolute minimum out of fear that people would stop their search for work. Nor did women qualify for support. They were expected to turn to male relatives for help.

I remember my mom telling me that whatever was leftover from breakfast and dinner found its way to supper, including fried porridge.

She always appeared thin in photos from the 1930s, but never without a smile.

The country had just climbed out of the Depression when Canada went to war against Nazi Germany in 1939. There was no great patriotic outpouring, just a grim sense of duty.

My father served with the British Columbia Regiment and saw action as a tank gunner-operator and crew commander in France, Holland, and Germany.

He was wounded twice, the second time ending his war.

He was still an outpatient at a Winnipeg hospital in 1946.

My mother, despite no formal training, worked as a bookkeeper for a large grocery chain. She was a whiz with numbers and handling money. Still, she was sent home at war’s end so that a man could have her job.

My mom didn’t mind. She wanted to get on with her life, and start to use some of the things in her “hope chest.”

My parents were married in 1948 and bought their first and only home in 1953, the same year I was born — the second of three children — and the same year my dad turned 40.

Even then, they took in a boarder and rented the top floor of the house.

They wanted their children to have the opportunities they never had. My mom and dad rarely complained about things and were not afraid of hard work. They insisted on a good education. They also valued the local library — the card was free and it opened up a wide world of reading.

I was never, ever, to think of myself as better than anyone else. But if I was ever better off than someone, then I was to help that person because we were all part of a larger community.

I was also to treat adults with respect — call them Mr., Mrs. or Miss, and keep quiet when they were speaking.

I used to attribute the values of my upbringing to having older parents. But I have a better appreciation today of what they went through in the 1930s and 1940s.

I also know there are families with similar stories. My parent’s experience has also given me some perspective as society grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are being asked to self-isolate for several months, to stay home as much as possible. My mom and dad were part of a generation that put their lives on hold for 15 years, first through Depression and then war.

Some may say that there’s no comparison. But given the unprecedented situation we face today, when things will be worse before they get better, I take some consolation in what my parents were able to do.

They met repeated challenges and never lost hope. We can too.

Article originally published on https://thestarphoenix.com/news.

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