Milestones- A Personal Bio Bainbridge/Milestones…1 of 6

By: Pearl Bainbridge

Word count: 2,150


Milestone 1- immigration

We stand on the lower deck of the Maasdam-Ocean Liner, for privacy. My parents’ family stood in a similar setting, long ago, when they were able to leave Indonesia, with dignity. We see family and friends wave from the observation hall, some are smiling and others look sad. My grandmother proudly waves the Dutch red, white and blue flag. My mother tells me, “That’s the same flag she’d sewn back together, after she’d retrieved each piece from its hiding place during the Japanese invasion.” She heard the drone of allies fly overhead in ‘B-52 Liberators’; in frantic haste attached the panels in proper order, ran outside towards the open field, held the flag in loose stitches high above her head, in jubilation. When my grandfather found out, he scolded her for putting herself in danger; afraid the Japanese would grab her. He didn’t understand how happy she was; thinking her prayers had been answered.

Milestone 2- Winnipeg 1968.

A Dutch welcome committee greeted me and my siblings, mother and father, upon arrival in Winnipeg with the train from Montreal. Three days prior we had ‘landed’ as immigrants in the harbour of Quebec City, where government people advised us to go to Alberta – but my parents were told by the Dutch Immigration department in The Hague, there is a job waiting, in Winnipeg. Emigration can be confusing. The committee, a school principal and a couple from his church congregation, brought us to the he Empire Hotel further up on Main Street. My brothers and sister and I, have never stayed in a hotel room before. The hotel is a stately building covered in dust, thirty degrees Celsius. It’s hot. Our first night in Winnipeg is spent there. We ride in an elevator, in an iron cage with an old man, wearing a red vest. My mother wants to wash out the bathtub before our bath, but the water comes out in a meagre stream and brown.

Sunday, is a sunny day. The cars driving past on Main Street are large and plentiful; my father likes them…But, the houses in the neighborhood; why are they painted different colors? Where do the “Indians” come from? Why do they look so old in their smooth skin, and why do I feel different, yet like them? I’m waiting outside, because in the hotel lobby, it smells of dirty carpets and cigarettes. Where are the crowds in the C.N train station? Is there a strike…is that why our suitcases didn’t come with us? It took three days to get here from Montreal. The trains work differently from the ones in Holland. All of the immigrants in our compartment became worried, when the train slowed and stopped with a jerk and a screech; slowly rolling backwards for what seemed an eternity and then forwards again. When the train stopped in an isolated place, we got off the train and watched – how hard working men carried the heavy blocks of ice with giant hooks into compartments. There wasn’t any shade on the platforms and wilderness was all around. The second day on the train, we were told the campgrounds with the huts are called ‘Indian Reservations’. The people outside the huts stood there in small groups and watched us go by; except for a woman with long black hair, wearing a white apron and a pink sweater, with two children at her side. They were walking the same direction we were going and I thought they might want to jump on. Was Winnipeg like an Indian Reservation? My mother wanted to go back. It wasn’t a good idea to travel by train. Winnipeg, in the middle of nowhere, seemed somehow a ‘stop-over’. It turns out, the job my father thought he had, vanished. The man my father was supposed to meet with did not exist; four children and no job.

On the lower level in the Eaton’s store, they sell pink popcorn. The lady behind the counter does not like us. She makes me feel uneasy with her impatience and critical frown. When we stay, with other immigrants on Stella Street, where the houses look the same and there are not gardens to speak of, I decide I want to go home, but I can’t. We had gone too far.

Milestone 3- Dominion Street.

We find a house on Dominion Street, where we have to pay a hundred and twenty-five dollars per month. Our family lives on the second and third floors. Downstairs in the basement is a storage room for our bikes, and there is a washing machine with a wringer attached. My mother tells us, it is ‘old-fashioned’ and dangerous if you get your fingers caught up in it. It’s fun to throw the laundry down the chute, in the bathroom on the second floor. Sometimes, my brothers climb into the chute, and let themselves fall into the laundry closet in the basement, making a huge racket. He and my youngest brother run upstairs laughing and then start their game all over again. The stairs between floors are difficult to keep clean. I hate to broom the dust and gravel to the bottom; sort out all the shoes and return them neatly on the mats. The thick clouds of dust that develops mixes with sun rays that make me sneeze. I imagine I’m in a desert far-away, or somewhere else. Our landlord, lives below us on the first floor. He and his wife have a Ukrainian name, I cannot pronounce. I understand, that the man is bitter and his wife “just obeys, believing what her husband tells her”. The man struck my brother in the basement one day. I saw my brother sitting on the cement floor, crying. I ran upstairs, yelling for my father…. “That man, that man.”…He was large, his hand like a giant’s. My father flew down the stairs like an eagle and I thought there would be a death. Father, thought he had to go to jail. He changed from his work-clothes, bathed and got dressed in his best clothes and shoes; but the police, who spoke quietly, said; it was only an “incident”. We were told; it was a “misunderstanding”. Dominion Street is a beautiful street. Large Elm trees form an arch over the road where children play. Every day, they are there to welcome me with their stillness, offer me their protection. In the winter, a slide is made at the end of our street down the Assiniboine riverbank. It is our favorite place; where all the neighborhood children meet. I share a bedroom with my sister. It has nice hardwood floors, with thin slats, rose colored walls with white trim, and a window, facing the street. In the summer when the window is open, the squirrels jump from the Elm branches onto the roof. They aren’t afraid to peek inside our room. The squirrels have gotten into the storage spaces of our walk-in closets. We listen to them at night as they gnaw at the suitcases from Holland.

Milestone 4- Alexandra School.

On the corner of Portage Avenue and Dominion Street, by the ‘Joe Vine Driving School’, my brother and I wait for the bus to go downtown. When the bus arrives, I ask the bus driver if his bus is the ‘Portage’ bus; but I make a mistake in pronouncing it the way French people would and he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. At that point, I think maybe he didn’t hear me and I ask him louder. Then one nice woman on the bus tells him, she means ‘Portage’ and pronounces the way an English speaking person would. We were just happy to get on the bus to get to our first day of school. We are enrolled at Alexandra School on Edmonton Street, because we have to learn English. Mr. Suprowich is our teacher. There are children from Portugal and Czechoslovakia and a tall girl from Japan. Some children are older and others are younger than us. Mr. Suprowich has informed me that I should not write they way I do. My handwriting is neat, and back in Holland I excelled in ‘neatness’. I write in block letters hinged together with small adjoining arcs, which are pleasing to the eye. “You can’t write like that” he says. The first story I learn to read in English is called: ‘Zachary Z.’- Grade four levels. I’m told ‘Zachary’ is the name of a boy. Some of the words in the story are difficult to pronounce, like the words thought and though – ‘TH’ sounds. I can’t understand the meaning of ‘though’; where would I use the word ‘though’? After we eat our lunch each day in our classroom, we are supervised to brush our teeth. Mr. Suprowich leads us to the top floor, where they used to have assembly. There is a large porcelain sink we all rinse our mouths in. The assembly room floor is weak in the middle and we are told not to venture there. Our supervisor warns us about our safety. “Your safety is at risk and we don’t want to be responsible for it”, he said. The first song I learn at Alexandra School is, ‘Clair de la Lune’; taught by a nun in a grey and white uniform. She plays the guitar while she sings. She is pale, with a pretty face, and married to God. Why is she teaching us a French song…because of Quebec? At Christmas time, my oldest brother and I are to sing Dutch Christmas Carols in front of the entire school assembly. It is ten o’clock, Monday morning. We are congregated on the stairs between the main and second floor, due to the weak third floor. After we finished singing, an awkward silence around us made my whole body warm.

Milestone 5- Neighbours and telephones.

The neighbours are German. Their daughters invite me over; they like me and I like them. Their father, who is really smart, has a library of German books in his basement, which fills it from top to bottom. His wife is also a librarian but she works outside the house. He instructs me to curtsy in front of him, upon entering his house. My brother is to bow curtly from the waste before he is allowed to enter.

“It’s a tradition” he says, smiling triumphantly. When his son was born he was so happy, he ran across the lawn to our house, climbed the stairs in threes to our floor and banged on the front door with his fist and shouted:

“I have a son, a son!” and gave my father a firm handshake and an enormous cigar. His daughters like my blue and white checked dress with the round lacy collar, which I brought with me from Holland. I’m invited to join them for a stroll down Wolseley Avenue, on the south side of the street, where the rich people live, to meet one of the girls’ boyfriends. We just wave from the top of the driveway.

“Say Hi!’ the girls say.

“Hello!” I say, thinking the word “Hi” is not a word at all and sounds strange, definitely strange. We have our own telephone, in the hall by the front door; a dusty-rose colored one, with a private telephone number. In Holland we did not have a telephone. We are instructed to answer the phone with: “Hello, the Edwards van Muijen residence”. After a few phone calls back and forth to one of my closest girlfriends, she became irritated with the way I answered. She said:

“I know who you are and I don’t have to be reminded of it every time I call you.”