The Immigrants by Robert Sapienza

July 11, 2009

Early one Montreal morning in 1957, the man on the radio told the little boy that snow was moving in, and although there would be no wind, they were expecting over two feet of it. Luckily for him, the snow would start after the morning rush of people going to work; children off to school and cats snuggled in their favourite stormy-day hiding places. Even luckier was the fact that he’d managed to convince his mother that by the time school was over, it would be dangerous for him to walk back the two miles.
In 1957, you either took a city bus or you walked to and from school. Back then, his parents couldn’t even afford bus tickets at times, so this, with his mother’s paranoia about these God-awful winters, enabled him to have his way and to skip school and imitate the cats of the city. He wouldn’t miss his schoolmates who were always beating up on him because of his accent; he was too young for the company of adults, and in any case, solitude was his best friend.
“Winters were never like this in Italy!” his mother thought.
Why was she ever brought to this frozen wasteland called Canada? Why had she let herself be conned into leaving a warmer climate and the comfort of family? Why had she let her husband leave Italy a year before? Why had she allowed herself to cross an ocean, alone with a two-month-old baby and a seven-year-old boy? A young woman alone, with two children on a ship surrounded by heaving waves, only to land in Halifax two years before, on a hot, humid and stench-filled morning. Speaking no English or French, she’d somehow made it through the infernal line-ups at the immigrant screening areas of Pier 21. In the confusion, a bespectacled Red Cross nurse had managed to somehow convince her through sign language to let her hold her baby. After the screening she’d discovered both nurse and baby were gone! What a great trip this had been! She’d managed to make it across an unfriendly and dangerous ocean, only to have her baby kidnapped by the local natives posing as nurses! Luckily she eventually found his little brother happily asleep in a nursery surrounded by what she called these ugly, four-eyed people. She’d never seen a race where everyone wore glasses! To add insult to injury, she’d been unceremoniously loaded with her children on an ancient, coal-burning and decaying immigrant train to Montreal.
“Don’t they have electric trains with private compartments like we have at home?” she’d moaned.
The three of them had arrived at Montreal’s Central Station looking like soot-covered beggars. On top of everything else, the long train ride from Halifax had been hot and stifling, so the windows were kept open to let in some air. Unfortunately, the air was filled with coal smoke from the engine, so when they’d come up from the loading platform to be greeted by a well-rested and clean husband and father, he’d mistaken them for gypsies! Understandably, the reunion had been an interesting albeit strained one!
As the little boy reminisced, he made his way out of the house, ran towards the field to listen to the snowfall. Soon he would build a snow fort and remember…
Yes, I still remember – because, you see, that little boy was me.

-end-

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