How I grew up

Five women share stories about when they grew up

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It isn’t really about the number of birthdays you’ve celebrated or the wrinkles you’ve got. No, curiously, turning into a grown-up often happens all at once. The loss of a parent—that protective layer between ourselves and adulthood—is one common trigger. So is the first time a new mother looks down at her sleeping infant with small curled fists and sweet breath and realizes that she will never again think of life in the first person singular.

But there are other moments when you find yourself suddenly taking responsibility for who you are. Whether it’s signing for a mortgage or a marriage or getting out of a mortgage or a marriage, standing up for yourself or giving in to yourself, growing up can be scary and lonely or exciting and invigorating. Often it’s all of the above.

Here, five women from across Canada share their pivotal moments.

The moment: catching the right bus

It was the fall of 2000 and Elsje Alblas was driving her bus from White Rock, B.C., into Vancouver when one of her regulars asked her to stop the bus because she wasn’t feeling well. But the passenger wasn’t really sick. Instead, she came down the aisle bearing wine, chocolates and candles—gifts all of the regulars had chipped in to buy. Right then, Alblas realized she had made the right choice and burst into grateful tears.

After all, driving a bus was a long way from her first career. At just 19 years old, Alblas had become a stripper. She spent six years disrobing in dingy clubs, until one evening when she stared through stage lights at the men watching and thought: I hate all of you. She quit that night and soon decided to go back to school. Smart and ambitious, she worked her way to graduate school at the University of British Columbia where she received a scholarship to study bird physiology. But then her boyfriend—a pilot—was killed in a crash, her beloved dog died and Alblas’s life disintegrated. “I went into a dark place,” she says. “I realized I was bitterly unhappy.” Not only had she lost her partner, but she was experimenting on animals even though she loved them.

Alblas found her new life and sense of well-being only after her car broke down. Chatting with the drivers while taking the bus, she found out that many of them had been doing their job for 20 or even 30 years. She deduced that bus driving must be a pretty enjoyable occupation and decided to find out for herself. Now 40 years old, Alblas lives with two dogs, two cats and her new partner in Richmond, B.C. “I couldn’t be happier,” she says, even though she has to get up at 3:45 a.m. for work each weekday. “And, no, I am not a morning person, but I never let my passengers know that.”

The moment: looking in the mirror and remembering

She’d been in Canada two weeks and she was just 14. Small wonder Iranian-born Shohreh Abrouie was eager to ride that borrowed bicycle—bare-headed—up and down the hilly side streets near Toronto’s High Park. When the bike flipped, she was thrown onto the road. The stranger who scooped her up and raced her to the hospital smashed his car mirror so she couldn’t see her bloodied broken face.

But once admitted, she slipped into the hospital washroom to look. Her nose was broken, her face swollen, her eyes red with blood and she’d lost eight teeth. “I looked like a monster,” she says. And at that moment, she remembered.

It had happened back in Iran. A boy her age had smiled at her. He had no teeth and she had mocked him, even when she saw how sad she had made him. “[Looking in that mirror] I thought I would never be pretty again but I was so upset about [the memory of] what I did to that boy, I couldn’t think of anything else,” she recalls.

Over the next year, Abrouie waited for a set of false teeth and had to endure her own classmates’ taunts. “I got the same expression I had given.” Becoming terribly self-conscious, she refused to say a word at school, often hiding her face behind her hands. But then she won top prize in her English class and changed her attitude.

Now 19 and at university, she wants to become a doctor and help others, just as she was once helped. Then she will return to Iran. “I hope I can make a difference.”

The moment: taking control of her body and her life

Paula Montgomery wears clothes that sparkle. She has a shirt with flames up one sleeve and the word “naughty” across the front. Two years ago, she began to suffer from the symptoms of multiple sclerosis—a debilitating and unpredictable disease that attacks the central nervous system. Montgomery is still awaiting a diagnosis—the stress and uncertainty of her illness almost stopped this dynamo in her tracks.

Her moment of reckoning arrived while she was working for the Annapolis Valley Regional School Board. It was the day of an important meeting. She’d lost so much weight a safety pin was holding up her pants; in the bathroom her hair fell out in clumps when she ran a comb through it. Worst of all, she was too tired to comprehend the day’s discussion. “I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was embarrassed for myself.”

Montgomery took a leave of absence and retreated to the farmhouse she shares with her husband. But she wasn’t about to go from this life quietly. So, she bought a dizzying array of wigs and flashy bandanas. “I’m breaking out at 60. Who cares what I do? It’s my body and my life.”

Montgomery has also embraced Catholicism, started a book club and joined a sewing circle. “I don’t sew worth a damn,” she says, “but the talk is wonderful.” Lately, some of her friends have been feeling old, which got her thinking. Now, she’s getting her belly button pierced.

The moment: quitting her dream job

She was always the last to pick her child up at day care—and sometimes that was only to take three-year-old Kembo back to the office. He often curled up to sleep in a makeshift bed while she worked into the night. One evening Musonda Kidd looked at her small son and thought, this is too much. And then she made the toughest decision of her life.

It was time to leave the job she loved with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, a grassroots advocate for affordable housing. Kidd was passionate about her work, in part because she had a personal connection to the cause: her mother was experiencing her own struggle for housing in her native Zambia. But last year Kidd left the crusade for the calm of a government contract.

That summer she and her son strolled home from day care, stopping to play in special hidden places such as Toronto’s waterfront Music Garden park. There was time to teach him about nature and the trees they were passing. “I really did stop and smell the roses,” she says. Now that she also has a baby daughter, 34-year-old Kidd figures it will be years before she’ll be able to give her work her all. Someday, she’d like it to be in Africa—perhaps in Botswana, where her father works. Until then, she’ll support the causes she cares about at demonstrations and rallies, taking her kids with her.

The moment: daring to defend herself.

His face is beet red when the owner of the school where Kimberly Thurston was studying leapt out of his seat, flung open the door and screamed at her to get out. She did. And then she got even. No one had ever treated her so poorly before, and at age 35 Kimberly decided that no one ever would again. She was going to stand up for herself and the other students who had borrowed the $11,000 tuition for what was supposed to be a 33-week continuous course. This costly diploma in computer programming was going to pave the way to a better career and a brighter future. It certainly was hard work. Thurston had been putting in six hours of homework a night, often falling asleep at her computer.

But then, mid-course, the teacher started to miss classes because of a family crisis, and the owner didn’t bother to hire a replacement. Instead, in that contentious meeting, he told Thurston to finish her diploma elsewhere or try to get equivalent credentials by taking an exam she didn’t really have a hope of passing. But Kimberly chose a third alternative: she took the school to court for breach of contract.

Two years later, a judge ruled that the school had to pay back her tuition. When she received only a $500 cheque and a letter telling her to wait for the rest of the money, Thurston acted fast. She went back to court and got full payment in 48 hours. Six months later the Connect Institute of Technology declared bankruptcy.

Kimberly refers to the whole ordeal as her “fight of pride,” and says she learned a lot from it. “If you don’t demand respect, you don’t get it,” says Kimberly, now 40. “If more people would stand up for themselves, we would have a better world,” she says.