Tuesday, February 21, 2012
an immigrant soul
Calgary winters can be bitter. For months at a time the temperature can stay far below zero, and the air as sharp as a knife. It doesn't really matter if it is sunny, because the sun itself is harsh. Without bringing any warmth the sun flashes through ice crystals and off of snow piles cutting into your eyes and brain like a laser. People freeze to death in this kind of cold. If your car goes off the road you are imperiled, and it is no joke. Like other Albertans I had my survival box filled and stashed in the car. Candles, health bars, matches fill the box and the trunk is stuffed with quilts and extra hats and mitts. If you go off the road in an isolated spot you are in serious trouble. Life risking trouble. The worst thing is to try to walk for help.
In those long winters I had a deep sense of being imperiled. I knew that life is cheap to that kind of weather, and the rawness of the unspoiled environment is not tamed no matter how sophisticated our cars or houses might be. I would sometimes look around my home and think about what we could burn in our fireplace if the gas went out. Although the bitter weather fueled my worst fears I feel a low level of anxiety about safety all the time.
In all my years I never realized where this came from. I now understand it came from my mother, through her family. My mother was the daughter of German immigrants. The Stang family came from Prussia, German Moravians, to settle in the harsh free land of western Canada. The lives of immigrants in those years was perilous, even as it is now. Building a home from nothing, living through long fierce winters and watching crops with too little or too much water, too little or too much sun.
My mom and I found the old homestead one hot summer day. I saw the house they lived in - a remarkably unremarkable small hand built house, not fifty feet off a still gravel road, with no remaining outbuildings. There are no trees planted around the homestead - it is very austere, like my grandparents. Nothing extra. No frills. Looking to the west the mountains are a one inch high border on the horizon. Looking to the east the prairie goes on forever. Raw unforgiving land.
A fire broke out in the barn one afternoon. The older boys had been playing with fuel. The youngest son was burned to death. They buried him in the farmyard that day. My grandmother had nightmares after that, and anxiety that they possibly buried him alive. It tormented her, that they buried him too soon. She couldn't resolve his death. I don't know why I know that story when I know so few others.
I have only recently realized that my mother must have never felt safe. She had the immigrant soul - a soul that knew how closely peril walked. She passed that immigrant soul onto me. I always told my daughter, 'we are peasant women.' She has forbade me to use that term, but now I know the truth - I am a peasant soul.
We live in a world of immigrants. Those of us in more secure places forget what it is like to walk every step of your day on uneven ground. Getting in touch with my own immigrant soul is still nothing close to the reality of so many of my brothers and sisters from Mexico, Afghanistan, Iran, and Romania (to name a few.) I want to be more aware of them, and not simply wave and pass them by. Maybe we can make their way a bit more secure, one by one. Because in reality, we are all immigrants of one sort or another, passing through this world.