Lately I've been thinking a lot about our first Christmas in Canada piecing together the bits and pieces I remember. This is our second Christmas without my Mom and I guess that's bringing a lot of these things to the fore. I started to write this last year but found I really couldn't bear it. This year as we get ready to spend Christmas in Calgary with the offspring and grandkids
it's easier to tell the story.
My parents arrived here in Canada from German end of October 1956 at the behest of my Aunt who was already settled here and missed her Sister. My Mother, who was not getting along with her Mother-in-law grabbed the chance to convince my Father that we ought to emigrate, and so we did. In my view, it was the biggest mistake of their lives. They made the best of it and going back was never an option and with time both my parents loved this country passionately.
Two reasons really, one they had real difficulties with the language, and two their career training was not acceptable here which made the first few years hard. In fact neither of my parents were ever employed in their field and spent the rest of their working lives doing menial work. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would have said, but it leave left them economically challenged for most of their lives.
But back to that first Christmas which is really my story. When we arrived here we spent the first few weeks staying at my Aunt's house. My Father tried valiantly to find work but everywhere he went there were signs at the gate that said "foreigners need not apply". That was perfectly acceptable in 1956. He trudged the sidewalks of this city looking for anything at all to support his family. My Mother got a job in a factory where they made nylon stockings.
It became apparent within a few weeks that we needed to find another place to live and the search was on. Because we had very little money an apartment was found with reduced rent in return for taking care of a small 6 unit apartment building. We moved in at the beginning of December and my parents bought a little furniture on the 5 buck a week plan. Just basics, nothing fancy. A couple of beds, a kitchen table and chairs was the extent of it. I remember being very cold that winter and not having gloves, a hat or boots, but then again, neither did my parents. I also remember very bare cupboards. The worst was yet to come.
A few days before Christmas a couple of things stand out for me. I had made a couple of friends at school and was invited to go tobogganing. My Mother said I couldn't go. At the time I didn't understand why I couldn't go but in later years understood that she was fearful of letting me out of her sight. This new country scared her and she was always afraid for me.
After a shouting match she went to the cellar of the building to feed the furnace with coal which was actually something my Dad was meant to do but he was out searching for work. I stayed in the apartment pouting as only an eight year old can and felt very sorry for myself. In fact I was so upset I decided after a while I was going out anyway permission be dammed. As I was leaving the building, I smelled smoke. I went down to the cellar and found my Mother in the furnace room behind a wall of flames desperately trying to put out a fire with buckets of water. I ran back upstairs and pounded on someones door (we didn't have a phone) and I guess I was hysterical enough with my broken English that they understood that we needed the fire department. I ran back downstairs to help my Mother and found that she had beaten back enough of the flames that I could run in there, grab her and tell her to get out. The fire department arrived very quickly and put the fire out without much damage to the building. They credited her for her courage. We both got a little singed but hugged and cried. If I hadn't decided to disobey her and go out anyway she might have died in that fire.
The second thing that happened was that the school nurse noticed I had bit marks on my arms and legs. Public Health was sent to investigate and what they found in the building wasn't pretty. It was bed bugs and they were everywhere. For us it was particularly bad because they took all our bedding away to be burned and left us with nothing, really nothing. Not a bed, not a sheet, not a pillow and remember this stuff wasn't even paid for yet. There wasn't a hope in hell we could replace anything anytime soon. This was all in the days before welfare or any type of settlement allowances for new immigrants, heck we were on our own. I recall that the other tenants collected some sheets, pillows and blankets for us and we slept on the floor.
On Christmas Eve in the morning, my Father being absolutely desperate took me with him to the Red Cross. We took the bus and when we got to the Red Cross office he pleaded with them to help us. They said they were very sorry but there was nothing they could do. Despondent he checked how much money he had left and decided to send me home on the bus and he was walking. He wanted to save what little money we had. I said no, I was walking with him. It was a two hour walk and just as we were approaching our building we encountered a Christmas tree seller. I stopped and begged my Dad for a tree. The seller maybe seeing my desperation or maybe having seen other people in our situation took pity on us and gave us a tree for a quarter.
We dragged it home and put it in a corner. There were a few decorations brought from Germany but no lights. We also didn't own a camera so there are not photos from those days. That night we ate our last crackers and drank tea. We sat on the floor and sang German Christmas songs. We were together, the three of us.
On Christmas Day in the morning there was a knock on our apartment door. My Mother opened the door to find a man standing there with a big box of stuff. We told him he had made a mistake, it couldn't possibly be for us but he said no, it was definitely our box it had our name on it. He left us to unpack it on our own. Inside was a complete Christmas dinner. Turkey, potatoes, vegetables and cake an cookies. There was also extra food, canned goods which were strange to my Mom but very welcome. Besides the food which we so desperately needed were some toys, a doll I remember with blond hair, and more importantly some warm clothes for me. There was a pretty red velvet dress, shoes, boots, mitts, hat and a scarf. There were also some hats and gloves for my parents.
Later in the day each of the tenants came by with a Christmas card with a little something inside for my parents. So where did all that food come from? The newspaper, The Toronto Star has a Santa Claus fund and someone in the building gave them our name.
That was the first time that my parents had to accept charity and it was also the last time. They spent the rest of their lives being charitable to others, especially to new immigrants.
This will be my last post until after Christmas and I wish all my friends the most beautiful Christmas. Be joyful and happy, I know I will...
Labels: Christmas Story 2008, First Christmas