Thursday, July 02, 2009
How I Came to be Here
It is July 1st, Canada Day, as I write this.
On a recent Sunday morning, my 5 year old grandson was sitting between his grandad and me in a church pew. He was scribbling on an offering envelope when he suddenly looked up at me with big wide eyes and said, "Omie, when you used to live in England, did you just get on a plane and fly over here?"
I smiled and said, "No, Sweetie, we came on a boat."
"You came on a boat?" he echoed, eyes growing wider.
"Yes, and a cat named Tibby and a Myna bird named Jasper came with us."
"They did?" his wonder growing with the story.
"Where are they now?" He wanted to know.
"Oh, it was a very long time ago and they grew old and died," I said.
"Oh," he said, going back to scribbling. His questions were satisfied for now .
That conversation reminded me that there is a story to be told and this seems the perfect day to share part of it.
After a false start when I was 16 and turned Paul down because I was going out with someone else, he finally gave me another chance and asked again a year later.
I was 17 and he was 20 and I was head over heels in love by this time. I had a hunch that I was hitching myself to a man that was not going to stay put. It came with the territory. And, like my mother before me, I was ready to follow the man I loved anywhere.
I don't think he ever really proposed but I do remember him saying, "So, how would you feel about coming to Canada with me?" and having to read between the lines that he had marriage in mind.
We got engaged on my 18th birthday, and just over a year later, we were married, on August 23rd, 1969.
By this time we had applied to emigrate to Canada and were accepted, but we had absolutely nothing to our name but a few wedding gifts, and a very little cash.
I remember on our honeymoon in Rotterdam, my aunts and uncles asking about where we would live and did we have jobs. They all seemed so surprisingly cautious, practical and conservative to us.
"Hadn't God opened the door?" we thought, and we were sure he knew the next step!
Paul's older brother had married an American girl and emigrated the year before, and his parents had also applied to emigrate and were accepted.
And so, on Saturday, September 27th, 1969, Paul's parents and his younger brother John, and his sisters Sheila and Judith; their cat, Tibby, and Myna bird, Jasper, arrived in a rental van, at my parent's house in Alvechurch, where they picked up Paul and me for the drive to Liverpool. From there we would set sail on the C.P. liner, The Empress of England.
It was only five weeks after our wedding and we were just 19 and 22 respectively.
I can still see Mum, Dad and Robert, framed in their front doorway, waving goodbye to us. I don't think they ever really got over the pain of it, but with the self absorption of youth, I had no idea at the time of the cost to them. Mum, whose love was always such an unconditional and unselfish love, only said, "As long as you are happy, darling, I am happy." But her heart broke.
At 19, I had no real concept that the rest of my life was going to be so far away. That dawned on me slowly and with an aching heart of my own, over the subsequent months.
The voyage started with a terrible storm as we crossed the Irish Sea. I woke up the day after we set sail. It was Sunday. I thought of Mum cooking the traditional Sunday roast as she always did, and I longed to be back at home, but every moment took me further away, and I was wretchedly sea sick as were most of the other passengers. Paul insisted that it was all in my head, until he tried to stand up himself. What I didn't know then was that I was already pregnant with our son Peter, having romantically and impractically wanted to bear children with this man I married, right away. By the time we realized that waiting might be wise, it was too late. Peter was born 9 months to the day after our wedding--May 23rd, 1970. While as hopelessly impractical as the rest of our lives at that time, we never regretted Peter's joining us so soon.
Once through the great swelling waves of the storm, we settled down to enjoy the voyage, which lasted 5 days. We had opportunities to talk to Canadians who shared some of the cultural differences between our countries. There was much to do on board--movies to watch, games to play and delicious meals in the dining room. The days passed by quickly.
Tibby, who was housed in special quarters, in a cage, sniffed the air and seemed to know when land was approaching. We spotted icebergs off the coast of Belle Isle and then Newfoundland, and soon we were sailing down the St. Laurence, bound for Montreal.
It was October 3rd when we landed, and sailing down the St. Laurence was the perfect introduction to our new homeland, for the leaves were ablaze with the glorious fall colours and the long strip farms stretched back like thin ribbons sewn together. The spires of churches dotted the shore and we were in awe of the beauty.
In Montreal we loaded our sparse belongings and the cat and bird, onto a train for Toronto.
Arriving in Union Station we were met by distant family members who drove us to Mimico in Etobicoke where we were to spend our first week with Paul's elder brother and his wife.
Outside the station, we gazed up at the tall buildings, craning our necks. Everything seemed so big.
Mimico was where my heart failed me. We found our way there over concrete expressways and there even the leaves on the trees seemed to be coated in dust. Where were the mountains and the mounties on horse back?
I cried and didn't want to unpack a single thing. I thought that I had made a terrible mistake and I just wanted to go home. There were 7 of us staying with Paul's brother and his wife, in a tiny house on Algoma Street. One day Paul and I ventured by train to the nearby suburb of Clarkson, following a lead on a job at a factory there. We knocked at a door to ask directions and a lady wearing an apron answered. When we told her where we were headed, she told us to wait for a moment and she took off her apron, got out her car keys and drove us there. That kindness remains in my memory as an example of the warmth of the people of Canada.
We were in Etobicoke for just a week before we found an apartment in Aurora. We had just enough money for the first and last month's rent. It was $140 a month, I believe.
Our one piece of furniture was the orange crate in which our belongings had been shipped. It served as a coffee table. The kind building superintendant gave us bits of furniture that other tenants had left behind, as well as a bed that they had brought over from Holland years before.
We had no food, but our first Sunday was Thanksgiving and the church we attended kindly gave us all of the produce and canned goods that the congregation had donated. I wasn't sure what to do with some of the strange looking vegetables, but we were deeply grateful.
Paul promised that if I was truly miserable still, after a couple of years, he would go back, but not as a failure. I took a deep breath and resigned myself to staying, at least for the time being.
I was to grow to love this country deeply and when I had the chance, a couple of years later, to go back to England for good, I knew that this was where I belonged and where our family should be raised. I voted to stay. God has blessed us here in so many ways, but those are other stories for other times.