Snapshots of Immigration

I am five years old. I am sitting in our apartment in Holland. My mother is showing me a heavy book with dark blue covers. I am looking at a picture of a group of men with very serious faces. My mother tells me they are called “Indians”. Some of them are wearing bowler hats! I think, this is what it must be like in Canada.

My father is in Canada. He has gone to find us a place to live. He has sent us a photograph. He is standing against a wire fence, with a long gun propped up beside him. His coat has black and red squares, and he is standing in snow.

We are staying with my grandparents in London. My grandfather is trying to teach me to eat “properly”. He wants me to hold my knife in my right hand. This is very difficult. My grandfather starts tickling me, and I hide under the table to get away.

My mother and I and my little brother are still in England, but now we are in the country with her sister and my cousins. We have gone for a long walk. I can smell wood smoke in the air. There are blackberries along the path, and we are eating them.

My mother takes us walking all over a large, large ship. We go down to a deck that is very close to the water. This is where they keep people’s pets, in cages. The deck is wet with spray. Later we look into a playroom that has wonderful toys, and places to climb. I can’t go in and play. My mother tells me this is the “first class” playroom. We have to play in the “tourist class” playroom, but this one is better. We go to the very back of the ship, and I look far down and see the water churning. The water is green.

It is nighttime, and dark. We are on a train and we are going to Toronto. I am very tired. When we get to Toronto there are very bright lights and yellow tiles. My father is there. He brings us to our new apartment, and he has presents for us. I have a dollhouse, my little brother gets a tricycle.

Our apartment is on a very busy road. Across the street is a factory where they make Coca Cola and Orange Crush. All our furniture is new. We have wooden bunk beds with two dressers to match, a chrome kitchen table with four chairs, and something called a davenport, where my parents sleep at night. My father bought the furniture on the “never never plan”. That means he pays for it every month, until it is all paid for. My brother and I like to play in the street. We write down the licence plates of all the cars.

My father has lost his job. They didn’t need so many people. My mother is very worried. She thinks we will have to live on Jarvis Street. I think Jarvis Street must be a very bad street.

My father has a new job, so now we are living in a very small town. We have a car, a blue Meteor, and it took us two days to drive here, with my mother and brother and also our new baby brother. My father told me we would see the Blue Mountains, but I watched and watched, and never saw any blue mountains. My mother is very lonely here. No one really wants to make friends with us. Our school is very old, and it has a funny smell. The stairs are made of wood, and they are all worn down in the middle. When they have religion class we have to sit on the stairs, because we are Catholics.

We have moved again. This town is bigger, but there are not many places to live. This year we have already stayed in two places, and now we are in the Brockwell Apartments. My brother and I have the bunk beds, and next to us there is a blue crib for the baby. My mum and dad sleep in the livingroom. I like the apartment, but our neighbours downstairs are grouchy; every time we walk across the floor they bang on their ceiling with a broom. I am not happy at school. At recess I sit on the washroom steps, because no one wants to play with me. The other children make fun of the way we talk and the way we dress. They call us DPs. My mother says that means displaced persons, and she says they are wrong. I wish my grandparents and cousins were not so far away. It is lonely here in Canada.





A group of us were talking the other day about this new practice of writing our own obituaries. I have to admit that I have always read obituaries with interest, fascinated with people’s lives, with their connections. What would I want people to know about me?

I had loving parents who taught me values of honesty and faith, but showed me too that even adults have weaknesses. My father read to me at night, translating from the Dutch. When I was upset he slipped loving little notes under my bedroom door. My mother took us on rambles to interesting places where we would find a tiger lily growing in a hidden ravine. She took the time to play games with us. I had large life experiences at a young age, moving from a sheltered place where I could speak easily in two languages to an adventure both in England and then Canada. This taught me that we have to learn to leave things behind, and to be open to change. As a child I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I never suspected that I would not really begin to write until I was in my late sixties.

As a teenager and an adult I struggled with many things. I was fortunate to meet a friend for life in my husband, and together we rode the ups and downs of married life, learning from each other, smoothing out our edges. I became a mother and learned to be resilient, and learned that I needed to put my children’s needs ahead of my own, not always successfully. I came to understand why my own mother had times of anger and despair.

I struggled with mental illness, and in the midst of this blackness I found good people, and I learned to reach out to others. I learned my own weakness, and despairs, and strengths. I wrote poetry as an outlet for grief and pain. I lost a close  friend and had to learn that we have to let go, even of those who are very dear, and learn to go on without them, with an empty space in our life.

I look back now on my life with some detachment. I am filled with wonder at my legacy of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. I am amazed at the fullness of one life.