My Father’s Map

My father’s life always amazed me. Whenever I thought about him, I thought of a young man of 21 on a big ship, coming to a country where he didn’t know anyone. He once told me that when he first entered his room on the ship, he found two rabbis sitting there – his roommates for the 5-day voyage. He immediately ran out, found the purser, and begged to be moved. He thought the rabbis would tear him apart. It was 1951 and he was coming from Germany, a country still dealing with the aftermath of a war it had started and perpetuated in the name of evil. It made me sad to think of him being so scared: after all, he was just a child of 9 when the war started and a young teen of 15 when it ended. Nothing that had happened was his fault. But I understood his fear. He was so alone – no one else from his family was emigrating to Canada with him. His father had arranged for him to meet a Catholic priest from Rivière des Prairies, a then rural town on the eastern edge of Montreal. His father wanted him to leave Germany. He told him there was nothing left in the devastated country for a young man of his intelligence and spirit of adventure. My father had trained as a farmer and this priest was going to help him find work on one of the many farms in Quebec that needed the help.

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In my father’s papers, I found a hand-drawn map of the island of Montreal. It is crude. The island itself has the shape of a football and dissecting it in half is Saint-Katherine Street, spelled with the German K. In the far west corner he has written Flugplatz, to identify Dorval Airport. Cutting it in half vertically is Blvd St. Lawrenz, the street which separates east and west in this town and has such symbolic importance to Montrealers. He has identified the “Lorenz” (Saint-Lawrence River) to the south and Mount Royal is marked by 3 circles with a cross in the middle. (How, I wonder, did he know about the cross atop our city’s mountain.) He even identified the train tracks along the south border of the island that would take him into Central Station. I have no idea if he made the map before leaving Germany, or on the ship, or even once he’d arrived. But when I look at it, it tells me that he was trying get his bearings in his new city, possibly before arriving. He’s trying to understand the city and ground himself in it, as if by drawing it he could somehow own it and embrace it. He must also have hoped the city would embrace him. The map suggests a kind of fear – fear of getting lost, of not knowing how to get to RDP, which is also marked in the far eastern tip of the city, where the priest, his gateway to the new world, would be waiting.

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Of all the papers I found after his death, this hand-drawn map is the most precious. My dad and I shared a love of maps, of travel, of adventure. We had a big blue Atlas in our house and I remember hoisting it onto my lap as a child and looking at the world, often with him. But there’s no way I could ever imagine doing what he did at such a young age. Leaving everything and everyone you know and starting over again in a new place takes a type of courage few of us have. I think he missed Germany all his life, even though he felt out of place when he went back to visit. I think he always felt a bit out of place here too, even though he loved Kanada and never identified as German but as Canadian. Hyphenation was not for him. I think a big part of him remained on the ship, drifting between the two worlds and it gave him an aura of difference which always intrigued me.

Of course, I am glad he was able to take the journey because it led him to my mother and consequently to me and my siblings and then to all our amazing children and grandchildren. I believe he never regretted it either. He was not given to regret. He was a look-ahead type of person, opinionated but shy, friendly but somewhat awkward with people all at once, often angry and railing at the politics of the world, but optimistic at the same time. I suppose he’d seen so much destruction as a child and knew that life could still be beautiful. He also wasn’t given to huge displays of affection, but in his dying days he held our hands so tightly and told us again and again how much he loved us. Then he lamented that we always wait too long to speak what’s in our hearts.

The priest never showed up that day back in June of 1951. My father waited and waited at the train station in Montreal, where he had disembarked from the Halifax train. It turned out the priest was busy with his secret lover, who I suppose was more alluring than a skinny German immigrant. Abandoned and alone, my father sought shelter at the Salvation Army, which helped him find a placement in a farm in the Eastern Townships where, apparently, he was very poorly treated. He had to share a bowl and eating utensils with another foreign worker, a man from Poland. Eventually he met Farmer Brown, a round jolly man, who took him in and treated him like family. He worked very happily for him for a few years until he returned to Montreal to become an electrician, eventually meeting my mother.

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I never knew about the map. I found it totally by surprise. But now I take it out and look at it often. It is more than geography to me – it is like the map of his mind, of his hopes, his fears, and his dreams. It is the map that tied him to us and us to him. I’ll treasure it forever.

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Burb Or Urb?

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Which is better? It seems to be a perpetual topic of debate. I grew up in the heart of the city, in Park Extension, so called because it begins at the north end of Park Avenue in Montreal. It was then, and still is, a diverse and colourful neighbourhood (see yarn-bombed trees and murals if you need visual proof). We played with kids whose ancestors had come to Canada from Greece, Ireland, Sweden, China, Japan, India and many other countries. We relished in the different foods and home décor that came with each – the braided cookies our Greek friends shared at Easter, the long noodles our Japanese friends slurped from paper thin China bowls, the plastic coated sofas we sat on in Italian homes.

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We were free-range kids, exploring the neighbourhood, in my case with a notebook in hand, spying on people through open windows that led on to unpaved back lanes. In my memory, and I don’t think this is nostalgia, it was an amazing place to grow up. We weren’t sheltered, but we were trusted to stay safe and abide by the few rules we were given. My street was busier than the rest, even though very few families owned cars back then, so my sister and I had to cross at the corner, at the lights. Once I tried to cross in the middle, thinking no one was watching, but my mom ran outside to berate me. When dinner time hit, front doors flew open and mothers called our names; there was no question that it was time to go home.

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The Greek bakers at the corner handed us broken cookies in a box when we passed by on route to Jarry Park, swim towels rolled under our arms. Bimbala gave me beautiful gold bangles from Pakistan for my 8th birthday. I sang in the Catholic choir with an Irish/French friend, painted plaster Jesus hands in the basement of the Greek Orthodox Church, and did Brownies at the Protestant one. It was all exciting and rich. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And yet, now, I live in the burbs and raised my daughter there.

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It’s not something I ever thought I’d do. And yet, I have to say, I also wouldn’t change a thing about that. My neighbourhood is an older one, with houses dating back to 1920; our own house was originally the summer cottage of a Westmount doctor who no doubt swam in Valois Bay. That bay itself is something I have come to love. I walk it almost daily and marvel at how each season and each kind of weather makes the water look different. It has been a place of much contemplation when I am writing and need to work out a plot point or mull over a character’s motives.

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My daughter’s upbringing was certainly different from mine: she had the local pool and all its wonderful activities, soccer (yes, I was a cut-the-oranges soccer mom!), play-dates, and summer camps. Life has changed and I doubt that kids growing up in the city are still as free-range as we were; organized activities have taken the place of much free play. But the kids in this neighbourhood generally grow up happy and healthy and full of the types of values one hopes kids will have. I guess what I’m trying to say is that growing up here has been very different from how I grew up but that, I think, is more a factor of changing times than burb vs. urb. But it would be impossible to qualify it as better or worse – it was just different.

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And yet, I look constantly for the giant green dome of St. Joseph’s oratory that sits on the north west side of Mount Royal (the mountain for which our city was named). On a clear day it is visible across the flat expense of Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport, or from the point down in Pointe-Claire village. I love that I can see it; it reminds me that the city is there, close enough to touch, waiting for me whenever I want to roams its streets and feel its pulse. It pulls me. It comforts me. It is home. I think the neighbourhood one grows up in always remains the most salient.

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There – I haven’t answered the question: Burb or Urb? Who knows; who cares. I say just live in a place that feeds you and makes you happy. Both have done this for me.