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.

More of Our Canada - - Contents - by Pa­tri­cia Har­ring­ton Kelso,

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.

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