In January 1970, my parents boarded a plane in London, England and flew 3,550 miles to Toronto. They then drove another 2 1/2 hours to a town of approximately 400 people (404 when we arrived) called Arkona, Ontario. They brought with them a 26-month old (me), a six-month old (my sister) and, according to them, not much else. They left behind their parents, their siblings, their homes and everything they had ever known.
My mother had been born and raised just outside London. She was 28 and had just finished medical school and her residency. She had never been to Canada, or anywhere in North America, before she carried her two girls onto that plane and set off for an unknown life.
It is cold in Canada in January. There is snow; lots of it. When they arrived at their little (very little) house, which they had never seen before, and did not “chose,” there was probably not much to see in Arkona except snow. By mid-January winter is also not that pretty in Ontario. It has lost the sparkly newness of December. Christmas is over and there is a long (long) time before the next holiday (Easter) and the next warmth (often long after Easter). It is a difficult time. Bitter cold and short days making everything feel lifeless and dark.
My Dad, who had graduated from medical school the year before my Mum, had a job at the local clinic. When they arrived my mother did not have a job. My parents had opted to put her brand new – and hard fought – career on pause and move to Canada for the opportunity afforded by my Dad’s new job, hoping that once they arrived she too would be able to find work.
If my Mum wanted to talk to her mother – or father, or brother, or best friend, or anyone from England – she had two options: an airmail letter carefully scripted on vellum-thin blue paper and trusted to the Canadian Postal Service, or a very expensive long distance call with awkward pauses and echoing words across the Atlantic.
As we embark on this life of perpetual relocation, I am fascinated thinking about my parents in those early days. Particularly thinking about my mother. Alone in a cold, unfamiliar place with very little to do and two small children.
I don’t remember a thing about our immigration to Canada, just like, I suspect, C will not remember living in Charlotte, moving to D.C. and, in a few months, moving to Kinshasa. But, nevertheless, I feel for my mother when C breaks down in tears and asks about her friends, or her old house, or her old bed, because, whether she remembers it or not in 20 or 30 years, right now it is a trauma for her and is, no doubt, having an effect on her. I suspect, likewise, I was not that easy to live with right after we came to Canada.
On the days when I’m feeling particularly weepy and missing our friends and Charlotte, I wonder “how did she do it?”
I have Facebook, and Skype, and text messaging, and basically free long distance. When I get bored in our apartment, I leave. I get on the Metro and go into one of the most fascinating and amazing cities in this country (if not the planet), with amazing restaurants and museums and an endless list of things to do, not to mention many of my dearest friends. My child is in a daycare she loves where she is, in turn, loved and taken care of so B and I can do the things we want and need to do each day. I know moving to the DRC will be very different – I will not have the freedom to wander around the city and explore it, but, then again, I’m going to be stepping into a fully formed community of U.S. Embassy families who will help us navigate the streets, culture, stores and newness of Kinshasa. They have a blog that I can read right now to find out what sorts of events are going on (Happy hours, a Burger Burn and the Marine Corps Ball…to name a few), for heaven’s sake. My mother had none of that.
And, hand in hand with my mother, I also think about all the FS families who have gone before us. Who have stepped into the unknown of a new post without the internet, Amazon Prime, Skype and mobile phones. And it makes me realize that hardship is a wholly inaccurate and very relative term. What B and C and I are facing will be different, definitely, but hardship? “Severe suffering and privation”? No. It will not be that.
And so, when I look out my window at the streets of Arlington, and I’m homesick for the streets of Charlotte, I try and picture the streets of Arkona, with grey skies and lots of snow, and I remember how lucky I am, and, as well, how thankful I am that my mother (and Dad) braved the view (or lack thereof), the snow, the homesickness and sadness they felt, in order to give our family the amazing life we’ve had. I hope one day C feels the same way.