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Children

Sietske Flietstra Bellsmith

I was only seven when my brothers, sisters and I were told we were moving to a place called Canada and would live on a huge ship for about nine days to get there. Wow! From that moment on, what had been ‘normal’ faded into the background. Chaos took its place! Strangers walked into our house taking our furniture away with them. Suitcases and trunks mysteriously showed up everywhere. Uncles, Aunts & Grandparents visited non-stop and always left in tears. My best friend invited me to dinner to say a formal farewell. Our family doctor examined all of us and stuck us with needles, that part I sure didn’t like.

At last we were taken to where the boat was waiting. Everyone wanted to take a last family picture. I can’t ever remember smiling so much; my cheeks were so sore for ages. All I wanted was to explore the floating city. Finally, nametags were pinned on each of us and we headed up a long plank-like sidewalk and were led into the belly of a large ship. As I looked around our cabin all I saw were beds, bunk beds. Of course we all wanted the top bunks so to avoid a small war Mom assigned the beds. Taking in our new surroundings, I noticed paper bags hanging up above each bed. How weird! I wondered what they were for? Maybe they were to help us amused by making puppets and things? Unfortunately I discovered the hard way what these bags were really for, as the floating city got under way. How could our stomachs possibly take this for nine whole days?

My older brother and I soon discovered that only certain parts of the ship made our stomachs do somersaults. So the only solution was to stay from those areas. Sounds simple, right? Wrong! The ship had a large day-care centre for children under eight. Dad had signed myself and my younger sisters and brother up to be cared for during the daytime hours. How was I supposed to explore the ship? Life wasn’t fair. My brother and I soon discovered ways to avoid the play-room, like "I throw up every time I go there," or "I forgot something in the cabin," which always got us a little exploring time before being caught. Dad got wise to me though and insisted I stay with the nice ladies in the horrid kids’ room, even though I was already seven-and-two-thirds. The third day out to sea a giant puppet show was advertised. The only problem was it was for kids eight to twelve. I was only seven and two thirds, but was determined to go. Probably trying to shut me up, Dad finally agreed to pick me up at the playroom and take me. I had hoped to get out of going to the playroom altogether, but at least I was going to the show.

The day of the puppet show I kept looking at the clock all morning. When I was sure Dad had forgotten all about me I decided to find the theater myself. Of course, as I started to open the door, one of the caregivers stopped me and ushered me to a play centre. Not being the patient sort, and having convinced myself Dad wasn’t coming, I took matters into my own hand (or feet). When the lady wouldn’t let go of me I simply kicked her in the shins, causing her to grab her leg in pain and let go of me at the same time. At that precise moment guess who opened the door? You got it, my Dad! Oh oh, now I’d be in big trouble. When I snuck a peek at Dad’s face I couldn’t believe what I saw. He was actually trying hard not to laugh, but failing miserably. I remember him mumbling something to the poor lady and removed me from that horrid playroom. In the hallway I was sure I’d really get scolded but instead he just took me to the puppet show and left me in my older sister’s charge. Lucky her! I was never sent back to the playroom after that, and don’t remember ever getting punished for my behaviour that day. Most unusual!

By the time the nine-day trip was up my brother and I knew that ship from top to bottom. We had been shooed away from some of the areas that I guess were restricted but we couldn’t read the signs so got away with a lot. All too soon it was time to re-pack and prepare it disembark. Our adventure was coming to an end, or was it? Leaving the large ocean liner, we passed through a long tube like tunnel. There were people everywhere. Babies crying; mothers calling to their children in several sounding languages; fathers checking and re-checking that all their luggage was present; parents counting the heads of their family members and frantic eyes in search of any who had strayed.

Even though my sisters, brothers and I wore tags with our names, cabin numbers and nationality clearly printed in bold black letters, I had no intention of losing sight of my Dad who was leading us through this over-sized water pipe. Fortunately Dad was taller than most men and always wore a black felt hat. That hat became a talisman to me. I felt that I would be lost forever in this sea of faces if I lost sight of Dad’s bobbing hat. As we neared the end of the tunnel I heard fellow passengers cheering and shouting excitedly and wondered what they had found. Maybe they were already gathering the gold we had heard was just lying on the streets. To my disappointment the cheering was only because they had reached their destination and were on solid ground.

It was great not to feel the floor (or ground) move under my feet and feel that motion move up to my stomach. When everyone had emerged from the long tunnel the real confusion began. Most of the adults were craning their necks looking for a familiar face among the thousands peering eagerly back on the other side of the barrier. Right beside me a fat lady, carrying a small baby, suddenly screamed, nearly knocking me over. I soon realized she had recognized her sister somewhere our there and was desperately trying to be heard. I actually think she succeeded as almost immediately her sister started waving and yelling. Watching the scene, I wondered if they were twins.

Dad gathered us around him, plunking a couple of the smaller ones on top of our trunks, and told us to stay put. Or else! From the expression in his eyes, as he spread one long glance over his eight children, I didn’t want to know what the ‘or else’ would be. Glancing sideways at Mom I could tell she didn’t like to watch Dad walk off into the crowd any more than I did. I saw a hint of fear that he might be swallowed up by the strange unknown and we’d never see him again. We couldn’t even understand what was being said around us so we clung together in desperation.

We waited and waited, peering into the throng hoping the next face would be Dad’s. After what seemed hours (but was probably only minutes) I saw that familiar black hat heading our way. What a relief! All of us sprung back to life as if we had suddenly remembered how to move. As the hat came closer I could see that the anxiety in Dad’s eyes had been replaced by his usual twinkle. He had found someone who understood Dutch and would help get us on to the right train. Together the two men quickly organized the luggage. Mom made sure every small hand was held firmly in a larger one and together we weaved our way through the crowd towards the next stage of travel. A last count of heads; a last glance at the huge ship that had been home for nine days; a last and firm grip on all our cases and we marched towards the gate where trains sat ready to gobble up all these strangers to Canada.

"Home" for the next few days was half a train car. For a pretense of privacy Mom hung a blanket in the centre of the car. The family who shared our car could be as noisy as ours and we enjoyed playing hide-and-go-seek. The adults eagerly chatted of their plans and expectations one we arrived in a place called Ontario. I didn’t worry about the future much, I felt safe as long as my family was close, and nothing else mattered. Strangely enough, the family on the train became our next-door neighbours a year and half later. Small world!

I loved to sit with my nose pressed to the window of the train, lost in my own thoughts, ‘This is Canada? What a strange country.’ Very few people appeared to live here as we traveled for hours and only saw a few houses. I had never seen such open spaces. The only ‘farm’ I was familiar with was a back yard large enough for a couple of trees, some rabbit cages and a chicken coup, like my grandparents place. Now I saw horses, cows, pigs, chickens, tons of trees and enough space to play the longest game of tag in. As we traveled through cities we all peered through the windows. I expected to see lots of mansions for all the millionaires I’d heard so much about. After all, with gold just lying around waiting to be picked up everyone should be living in huge mansions. Makes sense right? Anyway, all I saw were people who looked much like the people we left behind in Holland. These people seemed as curious about us as we were about them, they just sounded funny. Secretly I was convinced they couldn’t possibly understand each other.

"Toronto, next stop, Toronto," the conductor shouted on his way through our car. Mom and Dad must have been expecting this call because they started gathering all our belongings and returned them to their respective bags. Down came the dividing blanket; everyone shook hands with every member of the family we had literally been so close to; promises were made to keep in touch; Dad got out his ever-present hanky, wetted it with spit and began wiping hands and faces. The last person probably got more dirt smeared on than he started with.

I must have gotten used to the noise and confusion of travel because Union Station in downtown Toronto seemed normal. Dad again gathered us together and left in search of our sponsor, Mr. Neauelt, who was supposed to meet us there. Mr. Neauelt had been our next-door neighbour in Holland and had come to Canada two years earlier. When he returned with Dad he shook everyone’s hand (a Dutch custom) and asked about news from ‘back home.’ Then he tickled my baby sister, making her squirm even more, saying "So this is the latest one eh?" Giving my Dad a wink he added, "You aren’t giving me a chance to catch up to you are you?" (He apparently had five children at the time). Mr.Neauelt grabbed some of our bags and headed for the parking area. He stopped beside an old red pick-up truck and threw our luggage in the back and helped seven of us into the back as well. Dad, Mom and the baby joined him in the cab and we set off again.

What a sight we must have been riding through the streets of Toronto. As we bounced along I began to wonder what our house was going to be like. "Back home" we had lived in a brand new town house with an indoor bathroom. With a sudden jolt, the truck turned off the main paved road onto a county dirt lane. It didn’t take long before we all took on the colour of the road. So much for dad’s polishing job. With my hand over my mouth trying to keep out some of the dust, I couldn’t resist peeking over the side of the truck bed. It was June and the fields were alive with colour. Whole fields of trees (apple I discovered later) were still in bloom. Other fields were covered in tiny purple flowers, still others looked gold in the fading sunlight. It looked like someone had laid a gigantic carpet over the entire countryside. It was beautiful and inviting. I wanted to stop and pick some flowers to beautify our new home. "Here we are, your new home," yelled our sponsor as the truck rattled to a stop. We all tumbled out and starred in silence.

A large dark and eerie monster stood in front of us in the fading light. No inviting lights shone from any of the windows. No welcome homey smell met us in the yard. Finally Mr. Neauelt sprung into action and headed for the front door with the key. His movement was like someone had pushed an invisible button to wake us from our dazed state. Automatically we resumed the various responsibilities that had been ours throughout the long trip. I took the hand of a younger sister to guide her through the unfamiliar path leading to the front entrance.

As we walked in silence I saw a rusty looking pump in the middle of the front yard and wondered at the strange ornament. Just before the actual entrance we had to climb up a couple of steps and walk through a small verandah with a half brick wall facing the road. My sister stumbled as she went up the steps so I grabbed the brick wall for support and nearly lost my own footing as the brick came off in my hand. We stepped into a large central room where a gigantic black wood-burning stove took up most of the space. Two single bed frames without mattress finished the simple décor.

The dim light from two large windows helped the efforts of the single bare light bulb in the centre of the ceiling. Four doors furnished three of the walls. Two side by side led to tiny bedrooms. A third closed off the stairs leading to the second floor and the last one led into the lean-to kitchen. As I desperately needed to find a washroom I gingerly crept upstairs in search of one. Finding myself on a huge landing with a stove pipe running through it (central heating?) I saw two more doors. Hoping that one of them would prove to be the bathroom I ran to them but found only empty space.

Feeling my way back down the now dark creaky stairs, I looked up at our former neighbour and asked where the bathroom was. He lit an old lantern, picked it up, took my hand and let me through the kitchen, out the back door and down a narrow path to a tiny wee building. It smelled awful! "This is your bathroom, " he announced as he held open the door. "Where’s the toilet?" I wanted to know. Holding the lantern inside the cubial he pointed to the round hole in the wooden platform. "That’s the toilet," he stated as he placed the lantern on part of the platform and closed the door so I could have some privacy. Being a small child I wasn’t too bothered with all the flies so took my time looking at this strange ‘Canadian’ bathroom. There was newspaper all over the inside of the walls and holes in the walls near the roof. "Are you done yet?" a voice from outside brought my reflections of Canadian workmanship to an end. "Coming, " I called back opening the door. Apparently I wasn’t the only one in need of the bathroom because a line had already formed, so the lantern was left in place.

Back inside the house all our trunks and suitcases were opened. Mom was desperately trying to find blankets to use as buffers between the hard floor and sleeping bodies. Fortunately it was summer so we wouldn’t need the blankets to keep us warm. With a stack of blankets on the floor, Mom set to unearthing the tea kettle and some cups and asked Dad to light a fire in the black monster. With Mom sitting in the window seat and Dad and Mr. Neauelt sitting in the floor we had our first tea party in Canada.