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My son Matt was a year old in this picture. He’s standing in my friend Dan’s army boots. This photo was taken several months after I had left my husband and had moved to a new city. Once the shock of my dissolving marriage subsided, the reality of my situation began to sink in. I was a woman with no money and few marketable skills and now I had a family to raise.

My mother tells me that her parents supported nine children through the Depression and never went on the dole. I remember her telling me this when I was a child and when she said it, she sounded so proud. When I left my husband I had a two year old toddler, an eight month old baby and $14 to my name so I swallowed my inherited pride and went on the dole.

I received just over $600 a month and this crappy little place cost $290 a month. Thank goodness the previous tennants left that old lumpy sofa you see in the background, because that gave me something to sleep on.

As I’d tuck my two babies in each night, the weight of the responsibility I had to them was nearly suffocating. I knew their future, whatever chance they had in life, was totally dependant on the decisions I’d make and I was determined we would not be another statistic.

In those anguished, lonely nights I’d sit on that sofa, in the darkness of that tiny living room, and listen. I’d try to still my breathing, my thoughts and the nauseating panic. I’d force myself to focus on the muffled sounds of distant traffic, the neighbour’s droning television, the raindrop’s patter on the window until I could hear nothing but my own breathing. Only then could I hear the whisper of my father’s voice, “Educate to elevate”.

I had met Dan’s wife Marlene in the first weeks in my new city. Although I couldn’t pay her very much, she agreed to babysit my kids while I took courses to upgrade so I could get into university. Between classes, I got a job cleaning rich people’s houses for grocery money or a new pair of shoes for Matt. He was growing so quickly and was so hard on his shoes.

He was my little man. The most important man in my life. I named him Matthew because I once read somewhere that “Matthew” meant God’s gift. Matt was a twin. I lost his twin but carried Matt to term. That he was even born, (and born on Christmas Day no less) was a gift. I’d gladly scrub toilets to buy him shoes.

The day I took this picture I remembered wondering what kind of man would grow to fill those boots. Would I be able to raise a good, strong and kind man or would, in my desperation to survive – to keep us fed, clothed and housed – I make some misstep and fail him?

It seemed we both had to fill big shoes.