We’re All Immigrants

One of the highlights of my trip to New York, was a visit to Ellis Island.

I am here in North America, as many of us are, as a result of my recent ancestors’ immigration to this continent. In fact, if we all look back far enough, we are all immigrants.

Ellis Island was a place my father always told me about. My Grandfather John Jokumsen (who got frustrated with people being unable to spell his name, and changed it to Jackson), came across the Atlantic from Denmark all by himself on an old rust bucket of a ship nicknamed the Holy Oly. He was only 16 years old.

The reason he came was because he had a wealthy Aunt and Uncle who lived in Kalispel, Montana. They had offered my grandfather’s parents the opportunity for one of their 12 children (the “smartest” one) to come to the US, so that they could take him in and educate him.

And that’s how my grandfather, who was apparently the smartest one of the lot, got on the Holy Oly for that infamous trip to Ellis Island. It was 1912. And guess which other very famous ship was crossing the Atlantic at the same time? That’s right. The Titanic.

When my Grandfather’s ship pulled into the harbour at Ellis Island, they could see the lifeboats of the Titanic moored up to the docks. Can you imagine? The mightiest, “unsinkable” Titanic, didn’t make it, but the Holy Oly did. The photo above is the main hall on Ellis Island where every immigrant was processed before they were allowed into the U.S.

To make a long story short, my Grandfather did not take to his aunt and uncle very well, and ended up jumping on the rails and travelling all over the US and Canada by himself, working wherever he could and then moving on to the next stop. Eventually, he went back to Denmark and married my Grandmother, and brought her to settle in Canada. My father was born not long after they reached Calgary.

My mother was also an immigrant. She came to Canada via Montreal after a year’s tour on a Danish hospital ship, the Jutlandia, during the Korean War. She was a registered nurse, and had been banished from her family (long story), so she decided to move to Canada in 1954, because a lot of other Danes were doing the same during that time. And that’s where she met and married my Dad.

Here in Canada, we depend a lot on immigrants…if it weren’t for the growing immigrant population, our economy would pop like a balloon stuck with a pin because our birthrate isn’t great enough to sustain us. But, as has always been, there is a segment of the population who resent the “foreigners” “invading” our country, “taking over” all of the jobs that should be “ours”, etc., etc. When I listen to Lou Dobbs on CNN talking about the “alien” Mexicans invading the US, it makes me cringe. We forget that most of us are here because our ancestors were also immigrants, trying to find a better life in another country, full of hope for a better future. Maybe they don’t all do so in a legal, above board kind of way, but their intentions are almost always good. They are simply trying to help their families. Over hundreds of years, this is one ideal that hasn’t changed.

When I walked through that building on Ellis Island and saw the way the immigrants of those times were shuffled around like cows, marked with symbols on their clothes if they were blind or sick or poor, put behind bars if they were thought to be of dubious character, unable to defend themselves simply because they couldn’t speak the language, I felt a great deal of compassion. In the present day, there is no difference…people just want to find a way to do better, and we have no right to deny them that. Not really.

Ellis Island is now a museum. It is part of a tour that includes the Statue of Liberty…the ferry takes you from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, over to the Statue of Liberty first and then to Ellis Island, and then back to New York. A part of me wondered how many people would actually get off at Ellis Island. Everybody did. Maybe they were just curious, maybe they didn’t know any better, or just maybe they were from immigrant families too, and knew the significance of the place. That’s what I’m kind of hoping.


Weed Me, Seymour

I have a love/hate thing for gardening. My Dad was a very disciplined green-thumb, out there in the yard every day that it wasn’t raining, doing one thing or another. As a kid, I used to be upset when he didn’t want me playing in the yard and ruining his lawn and flower beds. Now, I understand.

I think I spend 95% of my time weeding. This is what feels wrong to me. How am I supposed to enjoy gardening when all I do is weed? I just want to plant pretty things, not pull out ugly, difficult, sweaty, dirty things. But weeding is all I ever seem to do.

I admit, when we first acquired a house (and a yard), 25 years ago, I did not know what was a weed, and what wasn’t. I had to bring my poor Dad over to instruct me, and I’m sure I forgot half of what he told me. So he ended up doing all of the weeding, while I watched from the livingroom window. He hated it. But every time he came over, he’d resolve himself to go out there and do it. I swear, if it weren’t for my Dad doing that every three months or so, my weeds would have been taller than my house. I was a gardening failure.

When we moved into our second house, my Dad was smart enough not to offer his services. I don’t blame him, we moved to a corner lot with a whole lot more lawn and garden. The people who lived here before us had a good thing going. It was well taken care of, and well-planned. But of course, not long after we moved in, it all went to pot.

I did my best, but I was a young mother and taking care of kids and getting a good night’s sleep were far more important than house cleaning or gardening. I’m sure I killed a few more things that weren’t meant to die, but I did get a little better over time. In fact, there came a time where I actually started planning my garden (poorly) and created a few flower beds, putting in flowers that couldn’t tolerate the area I planted them in, or neglecting to water them after they were in.

You have to water those stupid little flowers or they die.

We put in a swing set in one corner of the back yard once. The kids played on it so much that the lawn beneath it became dirt. That corner never did get back to what it once was after that. Still, I would get myself all enthused to go out there every spring and start weeding. By the time I got all around to every flower bed, it was fall and I’d long since given up. What’s the point? You just have to start all over again. All I did was weed.

Last spring, my husband resolved that we had to really make a project of the back yard and try to create a space so that we would actually want to spend time in it. So we hired a lovely English couple (you have to actually live in Victoria to get that THIS IS WHAT YOU DO IN VICTORIA), to come and take a look around our yard and give us some advice.

I have to say, I’ve never been more embarrassed. They took one look around the massive devastation that was our back yard and you could see their expression of horror. ‘Ohmigod, what do we tell them?’, I’m sure they were thinking. But they did their best to look beyond our pathetic yard space and gave us a list of things to get, a design to keep in mind, and lots of other pointers. 

My husband took copious notes. We resolved ourselves to take their advice and get started. It would take at least two years, they said. I’m sure they were being generous.

We tried to put things in order…this is what you do first, this is what you do last. The more we educated ourselves, the more confident we became that we could actually do this. That area that became dirt because of the swing set, was replaced with a little patio and a gazebo. We took care of the lawn for the first time, re-seeded and weeded-and-feeded. We took every dandelion out by hand. We moved numerous big rocks, replanted this and that, disassembled the pathetic, collapsing wooden compost and bought another more efficient one.  We repainted the garage, and found ways to get rid of the bugs and ants that chewed the heck out of everything. We edged the lawn, we found plants and trees that would work in different areas, we created more shape, more colour.

Today, I actually finished weeding the back yard. It’s the last day of May. In the late afternoon, I took a glass of wine with me and wandered out there and realized that we’ve actually accomplished in one year what we thought would take two. It’s a work in progress, of course. No putting in plants and flowers and letting them take care of themselves! No letting it go to pot again. Then I walked around to the front yard.

Oh, sh*t, we have a front yard too.