Saturday, March 18, 2017

Lessons learned

Me with my little sister Cathy in Toronto 1953
The following piece of my memoir writing appeared in the Katharine Susannah Prichard Past Tense Anthology in June 2016

Lessons Learned

It was a day of firsts – the first snowfall of winter, my first experience of snow, and my first day of school in Canada. I was only five and a half in that winter of 1953. My Canadian mother had brought us all the way from our home in Sydney, Australia to spend nine months with our Nana Mollie in Toronto. My mother had married an Australian and she left Canada to move to Sydney, in 1946. She always felt guilty about leaving her newly-bereaved mother behind and when Nana sent the money for the ocean voyage across the Pacific, she jumped at the opportunity. Dad had to remain behind in Sydney, because of his work. I would be attending the local school in Toronto over the winter term with my older sister Pat.

Lambton Park Primary School was within walking distance from Nana's house, but mother decided to drive us on our first day. I climbed into the back seat of the Austin, rugged up like a rolly-polly doll with my nose pressed to the frosty window. The neighbourhood gardens were covered in snow, like a dusting of fine icing sugar.

'Do you think we'll be playing in the snow Mummy?'
'Yes darling, most probably.'
'Will I make new friends there?'
'Yes of course, you'll be fine.' She reassured us.

Mother dropped us off at the front entrance of the school. I stepped out of the car and anxiously scanned the scene. A long path led up to the front portico of the two-storey brick building. On either side of the path, groups of boys lurked behind the trees. I swung back to the road to call for my mother, but her car had already moved away.

Pat held out a confident hand and we hoisted our school cases and marched at a steady pace towards the front entrance. We were half way down the path when I noticed a boy's head dart out from behind the trees. Then snowballs started flying. I moved behind Pat, but a something like a hard rock hit my arm with a painful whack.

A blonde boy laughed. 'Gotcha!'
I bent down to grab a handful of snow, but Pat yanked on my arm. 'No time! Quick, make a run for it!'

We ducked and weaved between the icy missiles, our shoes slipping in the snow, eyes fixed on the entrance up ahead. Other children fled, screeching with us, until we reached the safety of the front door and threw ourselves inside.

The rest of that first day is a blur to me now and it probably passed uneventfully. We had learned our first lesson of survival in the Canadian winter schoolyard. There was a trick to making snowballs and if you didn't know how, you'd better duck for cover. Over that winter we worked hard at perfecting our snowball skills. Although we tried, adding layer upon layer, until the snow turned to ice in our bare hands, we could never quite match it with the local children.

We had other adventures and mishaps in those months in Canada. One bitterly cold day, Pat and I went skating on a makeshift outdoor ice pond at the school. We had been dropped off and were to walk home, a distance of a half mile or so. Later, our hands blue with cold, we could not untie our skates and were alone in the darkening gloom of the afternoon. The other children had somehow vanished. We had to clomp down the street with in our skates still on our feet, and clamber up the stairs of a stranger's house to call for help. It was a moment of lasting embarrassment for my responsible older sister – and another lesson in winter survival.

Before long, we were on the ship sailing across the Pacific, back home to Sydney. Dad was waiting on the wharf to welcome us with big hugs. The summer heat blazed through the car window on the hot drive home through the western suburbs. When we arrived we were greeted by a deafening buzz coming from the backyard trees. The local boys were up there, perched on a branch, collecting cicadas. How did they manage that feat? Our next lesson awaited us. In due course, the dreams of ice and snow melted away.

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