The problem with time travel is that sometimes you arrive somewhen about which you know very little. In the case of both my parents, it’s the years between their arrival in Canada and their meeting that are the shortest on detail.
Who knew that trying to put oral history down in blog form like this would end up reconnecting me with my only female first cousin living in Canada, and my 92-year old aunt, who for all of my dad’s early life was not only his nearest-in-age sister but also his best friend, confidante, and partner in mischief?
My cousin Elly and I have not “really” spoken since we were kids. Our mothers, although sisters-in-law, were never friends; our families only visited twice a year, alternating summer and Christmas visits, making what was then the very long drive between Burlington and Windsor along two-lane highway 3. And we were very different little girls: Elly was raised amid boy cousins on her dad’s side of the family, encouraged to be independent, to speak her mind, to engage in lots of physical activity; I was raised to be quiet, sit back and listen, and above all NOT to get dirty. How we ended up in our 60’s finally being able to laugh and talk for over an hour is a little miracle.
When I initially started trying to turn pictures and memories into stories, I talked extensively to my cousin Helga in Germany, the daughter of dad’s next older sister Lydia, who had also made the trek from Poland with them. Tante Lydia died in 2019, so she was no longer around to answer questions. Helga suggested I contact Elly and Aunt Martha. I have to admit that I was reluctant – how do you explain a random call after 40+ years of not staying in touch? So I went ahead and wrote what I remembered, and published it, and only then took the coward’s way out and emailed Elly, sending the blog link along with my phone number. I figured if the message went to her spam folder, reconnecting wasn’t meant to be. As a dear co-worker of mine used to say, “to make a long story” , this past week Elly called me. I’ve since spent 90 minutes on the phone with my aunt Martha, hearing the facts behind some of the stories, and subsequently editing posts 71, 73, and 74.
After that long conversation, Elly and her mom continued going over stories about Martha and my dad’s early years in Canada, and last night Elly and I talked and laughed for almost 2 hours. The result of that, beyond a promise to start over and stay in touch, is this HEAVILY edited blog entry.
As I started by saying earlier this month, there are a limited number of black and white photos surviving from these early years. Money for photos was not high on the priority list, and when people did take pictures they rarely distributed multiple copies. Fortunately, my aunt’s memory is much clearer than any of those old photos.
Martha and my father emigrated together in 1951, arriving in Quebec City on July 25th on the SS Beaverbrae, and proceeding from there by train to the Windsor station. Martha had been determined to come to Canada – she felt there was no future for her in Germany – and dad was more than willing to have a fresh start.
In Episode 74, I told dad’s version of their crossing: how, unlike my mom, he had been a great sailor. When Elly read that to my aunt, apparently the result bordered in hysterical laughter. Martha recalls that on the crossing, men and women were segregated on the ship (even married couples), but during the second week a crewman came to get her because they were concerned for my dad; he had been “green” for the entire voyage, unable to eat, and just getting weaker by the day. Martha had been fine. She was amused, now, by the way he had changed the story, assuming he’d done it just to one-up my mom, since she’d been so seasick on her crossing. My aunt said that, in the ultimate irony, as soon as they hit dry land, dad wanted a big meal, complete with eggs and his beloved sausage, while she immediately got sick without the swaying boat beneath her feet.
The two of them started out working on Sigmund Nickel’s farm in Leamington/Kingsville. Sigmund was the brother-in-law of dad and Martha’s half-sisters Augusta and Amalia (Molly), who had each married a Nickel. Sigmund had been in Canada since before WW1, and was the official sponsor for dad and Martha, so they had to work for him until he had been paid back, which took until March of 1953. Martha worked in the greenhouses; dad worked outdoors, sometimes driving the tractor. They lived in a small white house across from the farm.
Unlike my mom, Dad and his sister arrived in Canada speaking no English, although he spoke German and Polish fluently, as well as conversational Russian and Czech. Sigmund’s farm was across the road from Millers Shell Station. After their work day, while Martha cooked supper and did the dishes, dad went “next door” (apparently EVERY night) to go sit with the guys at the gas station, smoking, and learning English.
In those days, the Leamington area was “dry”. Not only was there no drinking, but also no dancing, which was a huge change (maybe even a hardship!) for a community of young German immigrants for whom music and dancing were an important part of life. Undaunted, the group found a farmer who was willing to let them use his barn for Saturday night dances and, according to my aunt, the Kingsville POLICE STATION rented them an upstairs room on Sunday afternoons!
In March of 1953, having paid off his debt to Sigmund Nickel, Dad got a job at the Ford engine plant in Windsor. I always thought that it had been my aunt Martha’s soon-to-be fiancé Sigfried Krehling who suggested dad apply for a factory job, since uncle Sig worked at Ford too, but Martha says that it was the other way around: Dad applied first since his English was better than Sig’s, and then Sig went to work there too. Dad remained fiercely loyal to Ford, which made it ironic that he drove Chevys more often than not in the 50’s and 60’s. (Dad’s first Ford was a candy apple red 1967 Mercury Meteor Rideau 500 with a black leather top – the car in which I learned to drive).
It was at the Ford plant that dad “perfected” his English, so you can imagine the kinds of words his vocabulary included. To his co-workers he was “the Kraut”, “squarehead”, or “DP” (displaced person). In return, he thought nothing of referring to his Polish co-workers as Polacks and his Italian friends as “wops” (without papers). We’d frown on that kind of talk now, but to dad and his buddies the words that Canadians used to insult new immigrants were a sign of their shared experience.
In the spring of 1953 the Ford Assembly Plant opened in Oakville, and shortly after it opened dad, my uncle Sig, and 2 friends transferred to the new plant (dad stayed at Ford until earning his 40-year ring). The four guys moved into a house on St. Paul Street in Burlington, Ontario. Burlington in those days was mostly a bedroom community for Hamilton’s steel workers at Stelco and Dofasco; Ford’s huge new assembly plant in Oakville meant that nearby Burlington was perfectly placed for growth. It’s population of 6000 in 1951 increased to 47000 by 1961 (our family accounted for 6 of those in that time period: dad, mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my brother and I).
There were some great stories about the guys “batching it” in that house; the funniest was their attempt at cooking rice. They figured 4 hungry guys could easily eat 8 cups of rice, so that’s how many cups of RAW rice they added to the pot. One pot on the stove rapidly turned into 4 big pots on the stove as they added more and more water…. and they ended up with enough rice to feed a dozen hungry guys. The mental picture that comes to mind is like something out of I Love Lucy. That may have been the precursor to dad’s propensity to cook for a crowd whenever he made one of his specialties.
From all accounts, between his arrival in 1951 and the end of 1953 Dad firmly established his social reputation as a lover of cars and women, with a string of attractive girlfriends on his arm. He was then, as he was for the remainder of his life, happiest when surrounded by people, sharing food, drink, and stories.
His life changed forever in 1954: both sisters, Martha here in Canada and Lydia in Germany, married. After her marriage to Sigfried in April 1954, Martha moved to Burlington, and dad lived with the newlyweds for a time.
It was also in 1954 that a new character entered dad’s story: my mom.