They were 40 and 47. Their sons were 18, 10 and 8 plus they left one in the ground at home. They fearlessly, on the words of someone they trusted, embarked on a journey that would change all of their lives forever. They set sail for a mysterious land, a land that produced such fine young men who liberated their country, in hopes of better things for their children. They set sail for a strange land in hopes of a better chance of their children living.
My Oma and Opa reached the shores of Canada in 1958. They had not had it easy up to that point. Opa lived through 2 World Wars, the death of a son during the Second World War, imprisonment by the Nazi’s in WWII and almost losing the love of his life to breast cancer in 1949. Oma was born during WWI, married and had her first child on the eve of WWII, lost a son during that war, had her husband taken from their home in the middle of the night, never knowing if she would see him again, and beat breast cancer in 1949. In 1949.
My father was 18 and eligible for the Navy, something he was eager to sign up for, which terrified my Oma. She already lost one son due to war and the Cold War was heating up. At the time, they saw no other option but to leave Holland, to leave Europe far, far away, for the peace of Canada.
Opa quit his very prestigious job (at that time) as a supervisor at a box factory. They packed up their precious belongings and boarded the ship from Rotterdam. It took two weeks to arrive at their first official Canadian address in Bowness, Alberta after landing in Montreal.
They didn’t speak a word of English. Not a single, solitary word. There was no welfare, no safety nets, and no free English-speaking classes. Sink or swim, baby. Promised work, upon arrival, had dissipated into thin air and suddenly Opa had no idea whatsoever how he was going to support his young family. (The consequence of surgery to cure Oma’s breast cancer she was unable to ever work again.) Opa finally found work cleaning offices at night. He did such a great job (no English needed – cleaning is universal and there was no one to talk to anyways) before he knew it he had a second job and then a third cleaning at a bank. (He was always so proud that he was trusted enough to clean at the bank.) He was lucky to catch 4 or 5 hours of sleep a day. He never considered it work beneath him, any work is honorable and you do your best, no matter what you may think. My father helped him with cleaning and the boys went to school to bring home the English lessons. As my father’s English improved, he was able to secure a job at Eaton’s which income also helped support the family.
I am in awe of the brazenness of it all. I am in awe of the sacrifices they made for their children. They started their second lives, from scratch, at an age where most are enjoying their middle years, and they did it with young children in tow. On the days I complain the internet isn’t as good as it was back home, I think of Oma who didn’t find out her sister died until two months after the fact because of the communication hurdles back in the time. (Remember Europe was still rebuilding from the devastation from WWII and telephones and telephone lines were beyond reach of ordinary citizens.) I can talk to my sister every day, free. I have the internet, cell phones and cheap long distance. A letter can travel the world in a week.
I can complain I long for the Canadian foods I am familiar with and fire up the internet and have them delivered pronto. Some days I feel silly I kvetching about myself imposed situation when I think of her isolation and how homesick she must have been. There were no Dutch Import food stores back then and only a handful of Dutch people to commiserate with. Not only did she study a brand new language, she also had to learn to cook all over again with most foods she never saw before and without her favorite ingredients. (Corn was pig food in Europe back in the day. Opa never could bring himself to eat it in the 92 years he lived.)
You know, I never remember them complaining. I never remember them awfulizing how bad it is or what a wrong decision they made. I’m sure there were tears of some sort but I never saw them. I was only shown the joy of how happy they were to have me and my sister in their lives. Sure, they terribly pined for their family and culture back in Holland but the new life that was blossoming in front of them at some point became all worth the sacrifice. They moved on from missing what they had to looking forward to what was coming.
Sadly, Oma passed away from cancer after only living in Canada for eleven years. She was only 51 but realistically lived two full lives. After Oma died, Opa was somewhat encouraged to maybe move back to Holland to retire. It was at this lonesome period in his life I did sense some despair of wondering what would have been had they stayed in Holland but as the grief of losing his partner in this journey eased, these thoughts dissipated. (In his later years he wouldn’t even leave the Calgary area in fear he would die while gone and we wouldn’t bury him next to her. )
So, on those days I feel sorry for myself that I miss a Timmy’s, or a dryer or my friends and family, I remember what Oma and Opa went through to make sure their family and future family had safer lives. And I am thankful that I have such powerful and deeply rooted examples of perseverance and bravery. It truly puts everything immediately into perspective. I keep thinking of the Buddhist saying, “I complained I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.”
Have we made the correct decision to pack up and live an adventure half way around the world? To strange lands and countries we have only heard of or seen in documentaries? We are very similar in age to Oma and Opa when they began their second lives. (Both situations were choices to change things up, although we do not have young children in tow and our income is secure. Also, for the most part, we can find our own language just about anywhere in the world.) Nevertheless, are we putting our future retirement in perilous conditions?
I am approaching the age my Oma passed away. Although difficult, I’m sure if she had a choice she would have never reneged on her last 11 years of life living in Canada. I sincerely hope they were her most peaceful and fulfilling. Besides, how do I know I don’t have only 11 years left myself? Do I really want to spend them in fear of the known and unknown? Playing it safe but somewhat (to me) boring? Or do I want to create my legacy of being brave enough to shake it up and live my (and our) dreams, even though I have and will continue to have moments of aloneness, misgivings and worries. (But never regrets.)
In the words of my beloved Opa, “I woke up breathing today. Another bonus day. So far, so good.”