Immigrating to Canada (and the US)

My parents went through a violent and turbulent divorce, triggered to a large extent by my father’s PTSD. He went AWAL in Hitler’s army after witnessing the atrocities on the Russian front in Poland. While he successfully led the family on their long walk to the west at the end of the war, and together with my mother rebuilt the family’s fortunes into a multi national and highly successful enterprise, fear and panic were always just below the surface of his psyche.

When the business collapsed and the marriage lay shattered I was barely three years old. One of my earliest memories is of a beating inflicted by my father that saw my mother’s blood splattered across the wall I pressed myself against. As a single mom, with four children, without a safety net and a divorce that dragged through endless lawsuits, never yielding any financial support from my father, she raised me to be a responsible and independent young man.

In 1968 we escaped the clutches of this strife by immigrating to Canada where mother worked as a housekeeper for a lawyer family. We lived in the dingy basement of a plush house on High Park Gardens. A year later we moved to Santa Barbara where mother worked as a live-in private care nurse for an aged oil tycoon on a ranch in Goleta. Both positions demanded a 24/7 commitment that my mother executed with pride and dignity.

While my first year in Toronto was mostly occupied with learning the language, I was also exposed to the cultural relationship between wealthy master and poor servant as we were totally dependent on the grace and decency of my mother’s employer. Later I realized that it was also my first exposure to First Nations in Canada as our sponsor family had just adopted an indiginous baby girl who was loved and showered with attention by everyone.

A fan of Bonanza back in Germany, when I arrived on the ranch I was in heaven. Bill, an old cowboy who trained his own “cow ponies”, Nick and Clancy, put me to work riding the range. I had never ridden before and was scared at first. “Don’t worry Tom, Clancy knows what to do. Just keep the reins loose and hold on tight.” That’s when I learned how to heard cattle and bring them home for shots, pills and tagging. I also learned that it was routine to pour a cup of poison on their backs to kill the cattle grub that hatched in their heels and grew to an inch in length as it made its way through their body to emerge on their backs.

This is where my respect for cattle and horses was born. The massive bulls were gentle and liked to be scratched behind the ears as they munched on the silage we would deliver to their trough in an old pickup truck. I learned how to teach an abandoned calf how to drink milk from a bucket. And I witnessed what happened when a heifer was forgotten and alone on the range for over a year. When we finally found her and brought her back she was so angry that she broke through a fortified corral like it was made of toothpicks.

It was also my first exposure to Mexican farm workers as I joined them at the breakfast table in the bunkhouse. John was the cook and welcomed me with his toothless grin whenever mother would allow me to spend the night in one of the vacant rooms. He would love to tell stories of years gone by, sipping his black coffee as we sat at the end of the table where he used feed thirty or forty men.

Alas, after a year on the ranch, we were on the move again. It was decided that while my mother and sister could find accommodation with my older sister and her husband in Los Angeles, I would return to Toronto to live with my older brother.

This back and forth repeated itself until I decided to make Canada my permanent home, in part because I could not see myself ever serving in conflicts like the Vietnam War (my father’s PTSD finally resulted in suicide while I was at the ranch), and in part because I respected the choices made by my older brother.

Being fifteen years my senior, I held Jürgen in high esteem as a child. He taught me to love books and fed my need for knowledge by exploring in detail how things work. When my father presented me with a bicycle for my 8th birthday, it was my brother who insisted that we take it completely apart so I could understand its workings and maintenance first hand.

At thirteen, when I questioned the paper waste on garbage day, it was my brother who challenged me to do something about it. With his support, I organized and ran a newspaper and cardboard recycling program in my community long before the municipalities got into the act. Our curbside pickup diverted literally tonnes of paper from landfills which netted us just barely enough revenue to pay for the gas.

By the time I was fifteen, the violence of my father had turned me into a pacifist, the tenacity and fortitude of my mother had turned me into a feminist, and my brother’s vigilance had taught me about the empowerment that can be derived from applying reason to learning and exploration.

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