I was 6 in 1954 when my family and I left our home in an Austrian D.P. camp and came to Canada. Our first home in Toronto was a rooming house at the edge of the Kensington Market.
If your family came to Canada from another country, you know how hard it can be when nothing is familiar; when you need to learn a new language; make new friends; find a place for yourself. Our first years were rough, but I’ve always been thankful that my parents had the courage to make the move.
In 1954 Toronto was a very different place. There were no smartphones, no ipads, no computers…and in our case, no television. (Some people did have televisions in 1954, but it took a while before we could afford one.) What we had was a radio and I loved to listen to radio plays, which are almost like T.V. shows, but you get to imagine how the people and places look.
The other thing we had was the public library, where I could borrow and read all kinds of books. Some of my favourites were: The Moffats, Anne of Green Gables, the Borrowers and Little Women. I read pretty much every Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden book I could find and I loved comic books. It was thanks to the illustrations in the Classic Comics that I moved on to reading books like Jane Eyre and Treasure Island.
The other thing I loved was hearing the stories told by my parents and family friends as they sat in our kitchen sipping coffee, talking about their lives in the old country, how they came to Canada, and how they coped when they got here. I’m glad now that I heard those tales because once I started writing they helped me remember people and places that have given life to some of my stories.
I never dreamt that one day I might become a writer because I didn’t think writing was something I could do. I thought it would be too hard and for a long time I was just plain afraid to try. And, to tell you the truth, I’m a terrible speller. Always have been. I lay the blame for that on the English language. For years I struggled to learn the spelling rules so that I might improve, but it turned out that for every rule there were always exceptions and I couldn’t keep track. Then one year, for Christmas, my mother gave me a dictionary. That turned out to be the perfect gift. I know it helped when I went on to earn an honours degree in English Literature.
When I was small, if anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said, “I’m going to be a teacher.” That actually happened and I was a happy public school teacher for more than 30 years. When it came time to retire I decided it was time to try something new so I signed up for courses in writing and storytelling. I’ve always loved telling stories so I thought that would be a skill worth developing. The writing—well that was one of those secret dreams. Part of me was afraid that writing might be too hard, but after all the books I’d read I wanted to find out if I could write something of my own. What did I have to lose?
My first instructor, Peter Carver, advised our class to, “Write what you know.” That’s when I thought about the people and places I knew, the things I’d seen, and heard and felt and touched and smelled. And once I started writing I couldn’t stop. I wrote about coming to Canada, living near the Kensington Market, growing up and feeling ‘foreign’. I wrote about being bullied and about a time when I was a bully myself. I wrote about the problems kids have with their families, their teachers, and their friends. Eventually, to my surprise and delight, some of my writings were published and some have become stories for telling.
I still read and write every day and I often listen to radio plays and audio books. I love watching movies. If you happen to pass me walking through my neighbourhood you might hear me muttering under my breath as I practice a story I’m preparing to tell. My husband and I look forward to spending time with our family, especially our four grandchildren. And every so often I still take a chance and try something new.