My mother Mary Woznuk Teahen — here on her wedding day and five decades later, wearing the same headpiece at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary — was an indefatigable worker. She just was never paid for her labours.
She worked as a secretary after finishing school and left that role once she became pregnant with her first child. That’s when the real work began.
In addition to all the home-making work of cooking, canning, gardening, cleaning, decorating, sewing, knitting, laundering, ironing, child-raising — the domestic responsibilities of women around most of the world — she also volunteered her skills to help everyone from her neighbours to children half a world away.
She was an active member of her church, singing in the choir, catering and running events as part of the women’s league and also serving as “assistant sacristan” -— that meant arranging flowers and keeping the altar area of the church in good order. She did yet more catering and events for the local golf and curling clubs. Meals on Wheels first started in Canada in 1963, when a woman from Brantford, ON approached the local Red Cross branch about a program she had seen in England, where seniors were supported in their homes by having nutritious meals delivered to them. When this program spread to my parents’ town of Elmira, my mother was one of the volunteers who cooked the weekly meals. Meals on Wheels continues to this day across the country, but the meals are commercially prepared, albeit still delivered by volunteers.
She would canvas door-to-door to collect for organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, back when that was a primary means of fundraising, and sold buckets of daffodils for the society’s Daffodil Day. She would bring her formidable editing skills to everything from my father’s speeches when he ran for public office to local history publications.
The number of people who volunteer in Canada is on the decline, despite programs that direct high-school students to clock a minimum number of volunteer service hours as part of their education. Statistics Canada tracked a three-per-cent decline between 2010 and 2013, the last time it ran its Giving, Volunteering and Participating Survey. The decline is even more stark when you see that those over 55 — presumably who have retired from paid employment — increasingly fill the shrinking volunteer pool.
Statistics Canada also recently reported that the number of families with two working parents doubled between 1976 and 2014, to 69 per cent. What was uncommon then, is common now.
In her later years, my mother volunteered for Canadian Food For Children, a charity registered in 1985 by a Canadian couple who had worked with Mother Teresa and who send shipping container-loads of food and supplies to partner charities in poor countries. If there was someone hungry out there, my mother wanted to feed them. In the 1990s she also regularly prepared trays of sandwiches and garnishes for funeral lunches, a service her friends returned to our family when mom died in 2001. Now, most churches engage caterers as what was once volunteer becomes paid work.
Part of me thinks it’s a good trend that this kind of nurturing “women’s work” is now deemed worthy of pay. But part of me would give anything to see mom in her kitchen, one more time, loading up her Tupperware boxes with radish roses and carrot curls.
Main photo of Mary Teahen putting candles on a home-baked birthday cake : Kelley Teahen