October 1956 began with an adventure of the wrong kind for my mother and me. Emigrating from Germany to Canada, we were sailing across the Atlantic in a ship built in 1919, which was used in the 1950s to transport immigrants and students between Europe and North America. Forty other women shared our cabin.
A few days into the journey the autumn weather turned stormy, and it wasn't long before the ship sprung a leak right under my bunk bed. I was already too seasick to feel scared. Like many of the other travellers, my mother and I spent most of our time lying in our beds, unable to hold down any food. Shortly before we arrived at Quebec City, all seasick passengers were forced to get up in order to be able to disembark on their own two legs.
The next stage of our journey to Vancouver was accomplished by train. At least that form of transport didn't rock as much as the ship. We sat up for several days and nights and ate whatever my mother managed to buy when the train stopped at a station. All I can remember is bread smeared with Sandwich Spread.
Our arrival in Vancouver was intensely joyful. My father, who had come to Canada five months earlier, met us at the train and we drove south, over the Marpole Bridge, to our rented bungalow in Burkeville. No five-star hotel could have appeared more luxurious to my mother and me than that little house on Sea Island, with a proper bathroom and—finally—real beds to sleep in.
Most of the families living nearby had children my age, who took me under their wing immediately, even though I did not speak a word of English. There was competition among the children as to who would get to show me how to play their games, to teach me the words considered essential for survival (cracker jacks, jawbreakers, popcorn, marshmallows, bubble gum, popsicle), in short, to introduce me to the Canadian way of life.
We'd hardly unpacked our suitcases when I was sent to Sea Island Elementary School and enrolled in the first grade. Because Hallowe'en was just around the corner, the first graders were given a lot of mimeographed pictures of pumpkins and witches to colour with wax crayons. I had no idea what Hallowe'en was, nor did I have any idea how to use wax crayons. I tried very hard to pull off the tops until someone showed me that wax crayons had no tops to take off.
The afternoon of Hallowe'en—it fell on a Wednesday that year—some of the children in our neighbourhood asked my mother and father if I could come trick-or-treating with them. My parents had as little notion of Hallowe'en as I did. When my mother translated the description the children gave her of the Hallowe'en routine, I could hardly believe it was for real. After all, just a few weeks earlier I had been totally wretched, seasick and unable to eat, rolling in my bunk bed as the ship rose and plunged through deep waters, and now I was told that I would go from house to house, say some magic words, and people would automatically hand me goodies.
The problem of my costume was solved by the children. Everyone in our group was going as a ghost, so I, too, was given a sheet with big holes cut out for eyes, nose and mouth. The children asked my mother to provide me with a pillow case for carrying the loot. Were they ever surprised when they came to our house to pick me up and saw the size of my bag, because German pillow cases are huge squares, twice as large as the rectangular Canadian pillow cases.
The residents in Burkeville must have chuckled when they opened their doors to a motley group of ghosts, the smallest of whom clutched the biggest bag and echoed her fellow ghosts' "trick-or-treat" with a decidedly German accent.
If October 1956 started out with trials and tribulations, it ended, to my childish mind, like something straight out of a fairy tale.
This page last updated: November 19, 2011.