Episode 69 – Alone In Canada

Alone in a boarding house in a new country.

I have no real frame of reference for what mom’s life was like in her new country. By the time I was 21, Mom’s age when she boarded the Beaverbrae for Canada, I was engaged to be married. I’d never known war, or hunger, or displacement from my home. The only time I lived with strangers was in a university dorm, and that was by choice.

After her arrival in 1949, mom needed immediately to find a way to support herself. The $20 her father had given her would pay for her first month of room and board. Mrs. Miller’s house was subsidized by the YMCA, providing the girls living there were “good Christians”; they were encouraged to attend Bible College, and the college helped find immigrant girls work placements.

From left to right: Mom, Kay Miller, and a Hungarian immigrant boarder on the veranda of Mrs. Miller’s house. Notice the embroidered European-style blouses and skirts, compared to Kay’s Canadian style jacket and trousers.
Mom’s bible college portrait from Emmanuel Bible College in nearby Kitchener. On her immigration documents, mom was listed as “Evangelical”, which in Hungary meant reformed/Lutheran as opposed to Roman Catholic, but in Canada she identified as Presbyterian.

Fortunately, mom’s intense language lessons in Pleinting had made her fluent, if a bit formal sounding, in English. She also demonstrated good sewing skills, so by early 1950 she was sent to live at the Glengarda Ursuline Academy of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a convent in Windsor, and work in the laundry there. The Ursulines were a teaching order, running a boarding school for developmentally challenged children. Mom started out doing both the children’s and the nuns’ laundry. Soon her teenage kindergarten teaching experience was put to use demonstrating basic laundry routines to some of the more able children, and her sewing skills (evidenced by her own clothes) put to use tailoring nuns’ habits with delicate invisible stitches.

Mom waving from the gates of Glengarda.
Mom (far right) supervising some of Glengarda’s teenage students learning to use the convent’s “modern” laundry equipment.

The academy was where mom learned her fancy baking skills. She already knew how to cook, and bake bread – those were skills learned at home – but iced layer cakes in Europe came from the local bakery, and fruit pies didn’t exist in Hungary and Germany. The nun in charge of the convent bakery took mom under her wing and helped her perfect her baking techniques, especially her famous all-butter pie pastry.

Mom always spoke of the Ursuline Academy and the nuns with great affection. She enjoyed her time working there (especially the baking) but she didn’t get paid much – her room and board and an allowance. At that rate, she was never going to come up with the money to sponsor her mother and grandmother’s immigration to Canada.

Grandma in Pleinting (Vilshofen) in 1949. She mailed this picture to my mom care of her cousin Katharina Berg in Paris Ontario.

The solution came in the form of relatives already established in Canada: Henry and Katharina Berg. Katharina and my grandmother were first cousins, and she was my mother’s godmother as well, but she and her husband had left Hungary in the 1930’s, with their only child Henry Jr., using Henry’s share of his inheritance to make a down payment on a tobacco farm in Paris, Ontario.

The farm needed seasonal labour every summer, but especially when the tobacco ripened and was ready to be picked, sorted, and hung in kilns to dry. Some of the tobacco was simply air-cured for cigars, but most was flue-cured and sold to be made into cigarettes. The picking was hard work – all done by hand in those days. Even through the cotton gloves that the women wore, the tobacco sap stained pickers’ hands. Plus, there was the exposure to the high levels of DDT routinely used as an insecticide to protect tobacco crops, not that farmers were aware of the fact that it was a carcinogen. Tobacco was picked from sunrise until sundown, and mom was not given any special treatment because of her relationship to the farmer, except that she may have slept in the main house as opposed to the workers’ barracks. Either way, there was no indoor plumbing. (Nor was there when we visited the farm when I was small. I vividly remember the visit in 1962 when the shiny new PINK indoor toilet, tub, and sink were unveiled, coinciding with my mom’s second cousin, Henry, getting married to a “town” girl used to those kinds of luxuries.)

Top: Mom (in plaid shirt) beside a load of sorted tobacco leaves. Bottom: Mom hauling tobacco to a kiln similar to those in the background. You can see kilns in the background of both pictures.

By the end of the 1951 tobacco season, mom had earned enough money to bring my grandmother to Canada, and move to Hamilton to find better work, but it would be 1954 before they could sponsor my great-grandmother, reuniting the 3 generations of Katharinas.

2 comments

  1. Remarkable!!

    As I read through I kept saying wow or omg!! I didn’t have an easy life but her life made me feel coddled!! I’m sending this to Jeff for discussion at the dinner table. MY mom spent a month at a tobacco farm.

    >

    Like

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