In the summer of 1964, I arrived in Canada from the American Midwest. I was 14 and a half. I knew nothing about this country, except that it had ice, snow, Mounties and a Queen. On maps, Canada was a large featureless blob that sat on top of the United States. Its main export was Arctic air.
Three kids – my younger brother and sister and I – were the baggage that my mother brought to her new marriage. She and my father had split up, and she had (hastily, in my opinion) married a man who lived in Toronto. The five of us moved into a modest townhouse in Don Mills, right at the top of the city. Just across the highway were cows and cornfields.
I was miserable. I did not like the new husband, who was Hungarian. I did not like the townhouse, which was several rungs down the status ladder from the impressive Tudor in a leafy Chicago suburb, a house my parents had rashly bought in the dying days of their marriage. I missed my friends. I felt betrayed by my mother and abandoned by my father and I didn’t know a soul.
But there was an upside. I could reinvent myself.
I was an awkward adolescent – plain, studious, thick-waisted, with mouse-brown hair and no dress sense. In the vast, elite high school where I had suffered through Grade 9, I was a nobody. Fortunately, not a single person in Canada knew that.
In the weeks before I started Grade 10 in Don Mills, I went to work. I invested in bottles of Miss Clairol and turned my hair a brassy blond. I bought some thick black liquid eyeliner and white lipstick. My aim was to look as much like Jean Shrimpton as possible. That was a stretch, to say the least.
But at my new school, which was a mix of unsophisticated middle- and working-class kids, the impact was spectacular. I was the It girl from Chicago. “Al Capone!” everyone would say, imitating a machine gun. I told people the scar on my right arm was from a knife fight. It was actually from the surgical removal of a birthmark, but a few of them half-believed me.
I met Teresa and Darlene, so I now had friends. For excitement, we would take the subway downtown on weekends, have toasted Danish at Fran’s and walk through Yorkville. We never stayed late, because the last bus back to Don Mills left the subway station just after 10.
Apart from Yorkville, Toronto was a grey and dreary place. On Sundays, everything was locked down tight. The taverns were divided in two sections, one for Men and one for Ladies and Escorts. To buy liquor, you had to go to a government store and fill out an order form with a stubby pencil that was attached to the counter with a string, then sign your name. The biggest purchaser of liquor was somebody named M. Mouse.
Canadians had other peculiar ways. They said “zed” for zee, “shedule” for schedule, “aboat” for about, “chesterfield” for couch, “serviette” for napkin, and “homo” for milk. They still spoke with regional accents, even in Ontario. They had mickeys, two-fours, hosers and pogey. They smoked Rothmans, Player’s and Export ‘A’s.
I took up smoking and began to hang around with greasers in the plaza. I had never met working-class boys before. With their oily, slick-backed hair and winkle-picker shoes, they seemed dangerously alluring. They were as exotic to me as I was to them. Sadly, my mom was not impressed with my incredible social success, or with my straight-A grades, which I achieved without a shred of academic effort. She wanted to send me to private school before I fell into the gutter. She argued with her husband over that, and she won.
At private school, I was back to being an outsider. But once again, my white lipstick and blond hair (which tended to turn bluish) did the trick. People were fooled into thinking I was suave and sophisticated. I joined the smart-but-rebellious set. We were the ones who rolled up our skirts after school and found a place to have a smoke.
Slowly, life got better. Our English teacher (who was also a rebel) taught us Leonard Cohen, on whom I developed a lifelong crush. I got a summer job waitressing at a Hungarian coffee house in Yorkville. Pierre Trudeau became prime minister. Suddenly, Canada was interesting.
You put down roots one day, one friend, one Leonard Cohen song at a time. Then the time comes when you realize you’re not a stranger any more. You know all the subway stops on the line, and you forget that you ever thought “Avenue Road” was a very odd name for a street.
In time, I realized that the low-key Canadian temperament suited me quite well. My personality was too recessive to be comfortable with the brash and bluster of the United States. I didn’t have to learn to say “sorry” when someone else stepped on my foot – it came naturally. And so, after university in the United States, it wasn’t hard to figure out where I wanted to go next. I went home.
I still have my Canadian Immigration Identification Card, issued 50 years ago when I landed at the airport. It’s dated Aug. 17, 1964. I couldn’t know it then, but I was a lucky girl.