From Over There to Over Here
The first of many special Coming to Canada stories to mark Canada’s 150th. It’s one family’s journey, told through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl.
Our family immigrated to Canada in December 1938, but the story begins a few months earlier with the approach of the Second World War. At the time, my widowed mother Dorothy Harrington, had a son, John, aged 14 and me, a daughter, aged ten. Her beloved husband, Maurice, had returned from the First World War with ruined health, which led to his death at the early age of 38. Mum had lived through air raids in London and could not accept the thought of subjecting her family to another war. She had two brothers, each of whom had a bakery business in Ontario. After one sleepless night spent watching old men digging trenches and filling sandbags in the park across the road, she knew what she had to do—and before long our passages were booked on the RMS Ausonia.
Today’s ocean hoppers, crossing the Atlantic by air in the few hours consumed by two meals and a movie, may find our eight-day voyage hard to imagine. For me, it’s hard to remember. I was violently ill for the first few days and wretched with nausea for the remainder, so I don’t regret the dimness of memory. Grey skies, navy-blue water and throbbing engines were the background of our days; determined walks on the sloping deck in the raw wind, and a couple of dreary lifeboat drills, marked our slow progress.
The days passed, and at last came the final evening and our big farewell party, a splendid meal with fancy tasselled menus printed in gold. We always sat at our assigned places at the same table, where we were served by our steward, a dark-haired, earnest young man, plump and hornrimmed. He had become my favourite person halfway through the voyage, on the day when my distraught mother had dragged me protesting to the table. I was convinced that I could eat nothing after several days of sickness, but he had gently placed before me a plate containing only two slices of breast of turkey. It tasted so good that I’d begun to feel better instantly and was never so ill again. On that final night, he disappeared before the end of the meal, his duties taken over by another waiter. After the meal, the entertainment began, and who was the star of the show but my benefactor, the steward! He bounded out in drag, horn-rimmed glasses and all, dressed in bright-pink taffeta and carrying a bouquet, and did a real old musichall turn, dancing and
singing, “Twenty-three times a bridesmaid, and never a blushing bride!” It was a cheery and memorable ending to a rather stressful voyage.
Early the next morning, December 18, we sailed into Halifax. It was a grey and sunless day, and my memories of it are like an old black-andwhite movie with many scenes missing. I remember the physical relief of smooth and steady movement between two shores, the eight days’ nausea stilled at last. There wasn’t much to see, until from around a curve appeared the grey buildings of the port and it was time to gather our hand luggage and disembark. Cautiously, we moved down the long steep gangplank and because I’d last touched England with my right foot at Southampton, I made sure to put the left one down first at Halifax, so that I could feel that with one enormous step I’d leapt over the troublesome Atlantic. In the hangarlike building, we were met with lineups and more questions from solemn officials who weren’t very happy to greet widows with children, even British ones. I wonder whether we would have got in at all, had our two uncles not been waiting for us in Toronto, solid and self-supporting male pillars of their small communities. Those Immigration officials didn’t know my mum, or they wouldn’t have worried about our becoming a charge on the public purse!
Once through Immigration, it was on to Customs, to wait again for our trunks and then to hunt for them amid the accumulating baggage from the ship’s hold. Minor panic—had they got lost? They were “NOT WANTED ON VOYAGE,” as their pasted-on stickers proclaimed, but very much wanted now—where were they? Ah! There was the big black one with the rounded top designed to ensure its placement at the top of the hold, and there, too, was the solid woodbound chest we’d bought second-hand. Gradually, our bags were all rounded up; the last to be found was the shabbiest and weakest. Thank goodness it had been girdled with rope for reinforcement, for its hinges had sprung, and there, hanging out, was a pink corset, suspenders dangling! Our embarrassed mum couldn’t wait to get on the train and be gone. What time was the next train to Toronto? The question was met with a shrug by an employee, “You won’t get a train today,” he said. “No trains out of Halifax on a Sunday.”
No train on Sunday, could that be true? We were used to living in a place where at every railway station, at almost any hour, you could find a fussy little train hissing and puffing impatiently, eager to leave—or so it seemed to us then, as we looked out at the street where the rain was now steadily pouring down. But this was no time for reminiscences; it was getting dark, and no train meant extra meals, a bed for the night, action to be taken. A little group of Britishers moved together for support and consultation. We decided to share a room.
A wall of heat met us as we entered the hotel. How could anyone stand such heat? The negotiations seemed to take forever as we stood at the desk, wrapped in our many layers of sensible British woolens. Eventually, a room was assigned to our motley group. As soon as we were inside, Mum cheered up and ordered, “Now, get that window open!” John dashed over and heaved up the sash, which fell with a crash as soon as he let go. Next time, he used a handy piece of wood to prop it up, but the expected rush of cold, moist air still didn’t come, for between us and the night air was a second pane, impenetrable except for three very small holes behind a movable wooden slat. It was to be a wearisome night for all of us, lying fully clothed about the room on beds and armchairs and the floor, so many people and so little air. I thought of my Aunt Rene and of her disapproval when I’d told her once that I was sweating. “No, no, my dear,” she’d said. “Always remember, horses sweat; men perspire; and ladies glow.” I’m sorry, Auntie, I wanted to tell her, but I am really not glowing.
A cloudy morning finally dawned, and we found our way to the station.
The train was a revelation! I was used to a system whereby six or eight people sat face to face. But here, there was a great long room with a centre aisle and pairs of seats all facing the same way, like a theatre. The show would be at the sides, the passing scenes of our new country to be viewed through enormous windows. And you could even, when you felt brave enough, go for a walk along the entire length of the train! Now that was an experience—stumbling from car to car through links with vibrating accordion walls and terrifyingly shaking floors with gaps showing glimpses of the ground rushing past! There were several cars like ours, with brown leather seats and a travel-weary population, and a fancier car that sported softly coloured plush headrests. But such splendour wasn’t for the likes of us. Several times a day, we bought sandwiches from vendors who came aboard with baskets, shouting out their wares. At dusk, a boy came shouting along the aisle, and Mum rented three pillows for 25 cents each.
Looking out the windows, I had expected snowy scenes from Christmas cards, jingling sleigh bells, perhaps Alpine villages, who knows? But there was no snow, nor any sunshine that first day. We’d been told that the country was huge, but the experience of its vastness was still a shock to us strangers from a city near the green, close-snuggling Welsh hills. To us, this new land seemed flat, colourless and virtually uninhabited. Empty spaces, an occasional farm, a small distant cluster of trees—mum grew quieter, pensive, as the hours and the miles limped by. The endless bleak December landscape joined forces with our fatigue, draining away our spirits.
Then, on the second morning, suddenly John said, “Look! It’s snowing!” What a magical difference those whirling flakes made, at least to us children! We gazed, fascinated, tiredness forgotten. An hour later, the train stopped at a little station platform covered with an inch of fresh snow. “Come on!” said John, and we dashed outside and scooped up the fluffy stuff in our bare hands, making snowballs and pelting each other. This was the real Canada, this would be fun after all!
“All aboard!” called the conductor, and we scrambled back, refreshed, to wonder a few minutes later what Canadian kids did about wet feet and burning hands. I think of that snowball fight and realize that my personal movie had changed at that point from black-andwhite to colour, for I see myself in the dressmaker-made blue coat and hat, wearing long chestnutbrown stockings and black patent-leather shoes with buttoned ankle-straps.
More hours in the train, a second day of travel lasting long after darkness fell; but we needed no pillows this time, for at some point in the late evening, we came at last to Toronto. That scene is all in colour, too, thanks to the pre-christmas hubbub of Union Station bathed in yellow light. People were everywhere, but where were the uncles? And would Mum recognize them, after 26 years? She stood John and me against a pillar with orders not to move, and went seeking them… and there they were! Instantly recognizing one another, everyone hugged and came to us with shining faces, all talking at once. I felt I knew them, too, these comfortable, somehow familiar men in their Sunday suits—serious Uncle Edgar, darkhaired and Welsh-looking, and big jolly Uncle Frank. What a closeknit family of wanderers the Holly mans were! And how
marvelously fortunate we were to come across the world and find our own people! We basked. We glowed, but not as ladies do.
“Tell me,” said Mum after a few minutes, “What is Co-ca-co-la?”
“I’ll show you!” said Uncle Edgar, and bought bottles of fizzy brown stuff. He also bought for each of us a smooth and shiny reddish-brown sausage, daubed in vinegary- mustard and nestled in a long, soft bun.
“Oh, good!” said knowledgeable John. “Hot dogs!” And the five of us ate and drank, a family come together at last, the separating years and miles forgotten. There had been food in Halifax and sandwiches on the train, but the taste of all of that has faded and gone; when I think of my first real meal in Canada, I remember our little group standing in Union Station, the new taste of a wiener with French mustard, the unique, indescribable flavour of Coca-cola.
We really had arrived; and even the final leg of the train journey, which lasted several more hours instead of the few minutes we had expected, was tolerable. At least I suppose it was: I can’t honestly say, for I soon went to sleep against an avuncular shoulder. I didn’t wake up even at Blyth, where Uncle Frank got off the train. His whole family had come to the station to meet us! They came aboard, and I was called and shaken, but I couldn’t be roused, to my great chagrin when I heard about it later. I was half-carried from the train at Lucknow, and fully awakened by the bitingly cold air to the sight of high snowbanks. There was a car, and then a warm lighted room and smiling Aunt Winnifred. I followed someone upstairs and through a succession of rooms, a sitting room and a parlour with a piano and a big black stove, to a bedroom, a real bedroom with a bed and real sheets. And I slept.
That sounds like the end of the journey, but it wasn’t. Not quite, for I think the end came the next morning, when Uncle Edgar took John and me shopping. We stepped outside into a new white world where high snowbanks hid all but the heads of people across the street, even though those people were walking on layers of hard-packed snow. We didn’t have far to go, for Uncle Edgar lived above his store in the heart of the business section. He took us to the dry goods store (weren’t most goods dry? I wondered), where under Uncle’s benevolent gaze, we were outfitted in proper Canadian winter clothing. Mine was unlike anything I’d ever seen, let alone worn. Suspenders held up ski pants of navy wool, snug around the ankles and baggy everywhere else, and my cheery scarlet jacket was as red as that of any Mountie, but bulky with room for growth. There was a woolly hat with ear-flaps; but perhaps strangest of all were laced brown velvet boots worn over my shoes, fur-trimmed around the top and all down the front. And a pair of mitts! In Britain worn only by infants, here they were the obvious defence against frozen hands. Now we had the answer to our wondering questions about the snowball fight. And the outdoors would be ours to experience, warm and dry in our new clothes. So the transformation had begun, and the physical journey was over.
The real journey, the important interior one, would take much longer. Years of delight and disillusionment, of wrenching homesickness alternating with the growing comfort of familiarity, would change and mould us gradually, until one day each of us would discover, in his or her own way, and with some surprise, that we were indeed Canadian. But all that lay unsuspected ahead of us on that winter day in the dry goods store in Lucknow, where our real journey was slowly just beginning.
Patricia in her mother’s arms, with brother John in front, in August 1928.
Patricia and John with Uncle Frank’s horse, 1939.
Patricia’s passport photo, taken in 1938.
Uncle Frank and his family, visiting the recent arrivals in summer 1939.