E ven though it's been many years since I went to high school, many of the lessons I learned in those formative years remain crystal clear in my memory. High school memories and high school friends are very much alike. Both remain near and dear, the good times and old hurts remaining in a corner of our heart never far from the surface. It was in these years that I began to consider my responsibilities as an adult.
W hen I was in my last year of high school, I received an unsolicited lesson regarding my upcoming right to vote as well as a clear insight into the quality of the people who live in Canada. This lesson, came out of left field and had a profound effect on me. As a result, I have consistently seized every opportunity to vote in a conscientious and consistent manner and began to understand the passion that motivates our Canadian soldiers who volunteer to defend our country.
W hile in my teens, I was very high-spirited, full of attitude, and felt I had all the answers. All those who held my respect had to work very hard to get it and even harder to keep it. On the day of my memorable lesson, my best friend Shelley and I had decided to go over to her house after school. She was anxious to see her Grandmother who had been expected to arrive while Shelley was still attending classes at school that day.
A s we entered the house, we were greeted by a slim, fragile looking, elderly lady with gray hair, many wrinkles, old fashioned clothes and a heavy Ukrainian accent. She had just finished baking and invited us to snack royally on freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. While we ate she asked us many questions about our hobbies, and other personal interests, and listened intently as we answered her. In spite of her heavy accent, we both felt her genuine interest and understood what she was saying. I was drawn by her piercing, deep blue eyes that sparkled with much spirit, and inner strength as well as her calm, dignified manner. It never occurred to me to resent her questions and react to them as prying or intrusive.
W e sat and respectfully nodded while she remarked how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful house, street, neighborhood, city, country etc. Then she went on to say how fortunate we were to have such beautiful clothes, nice furniture, and time to spend with our friends.
A t this point the dear old lady excused herself and left the two of us alone in the kitchen. Shelley and I looked at each other in astonishment at her Grandmother's appreciation of all the little things that we took for granted.
I n a whisper, Shelley asked me to excuse her grandmother and explained that her grandmother had grown up in the old country where life had been very difficult. All six of the dear lady's children, including Shelley's father had been born in the Ukraine. My friend confided that her grandmother's view of the world was very much like that of her four-year-old brother's. They both reacted to everything they encountered with great wonder, like it was the first time they had ever seen anything like it. Thankfully the little lady returned before I had a chance to reply to my friend. Everything about the elderly lady impressed me and I found her positive manner endearing and refreshing. Feeling like this was not like me at all and I didn't want to loose my cynical reputation.
S helley's grandmother renewed the conversation by asking us how we liked going to school. School was a topic on which I had plenty of opinions, all of them negative, and full of indignation. Once more, I was not the least bit shy about voicing those opinions and did so on a regular basis. This situation was no exception.
S he gently countered my attack by quietly stating that she took great pleasure and comfort in seeing all her children and grandchildren go to school and learn. She casually mentioned how very nice it was that we were free to disagree with each other and form our own opinions. I decided to concede victory to her on that point. I like to think that deep inside, I realized that she was right. However I probably just realized I was out of my league.
E ventually, the conversation focused on my eighteenth birthday coming up in a few months. Shelley's Grandmother nearly had a religious experience as she exclaimed how excited I must be at the thought of voting for the first time. Frankly, I had thought of all sorts of good things that I would be able to do when I was eighteen but voting wasn't one of them. I told her so and added that I probably wouldn't even bother to vote.
I n her broken English she quietly asked me if I would be so kind as to allow her to tell me the story of her journey to Canada. Much to Shelley's dismay, I agreed and her grandmother began what was the most heart-rendering story, I have ever heard. That it was coming from such a gentle, and dignified person made the story even more profound.
F rom this point on, I will refer to this dear old lady as "Grandma", as she could have belonged to me or to anyone of us in our delightfully diverse country.
G randma and Grandpa, and their six children, lived in very humble conditions in the Ukraine. Everyone in the family, who was old enough, had to work. The elder two children were eight and ten years old and did odd jobs for the people in the area, who paid them with food rather than money. The other four children were too young to work outside the home so they helped their mother with the household chores.
T he government in the old country did not want the people to be independent and think for themselves. As a result, they prevented everyone from going to church and instead demanded that the people worship the government. For the same reason, the government prevented all it's citizens from learning to read and write, closed all the schools and destroyed all the books that disagreed with the government's point of view. Anyone caught not complying with the new, closed-minded edict would be put in prison. In spite of these harsh rules and implied threats those who knew how to read and write, secretly, taught those who did not. Many villagers managed to hide some of their beloved classic books preventing them from being destroyed.
T he people in the villages were not allowed to travel outside the village to visit other family members. Occasionally letters would be smuggled from one village to another by those who were allowed passage by the government, to deliver grain to the mill. Many of the people of Grandma's village dreamed of immigrating to Canada where they heard people were allowed to make choices and work hard to make a life for themselves. The government didn't want their people immigrating and discouraged everyone from leaving by threatening to put them in jail if they tried. Never the less many people attempted to flee because they were starving in the homeland. Grandma and Grandpa and their six children were among them.
I must confess that the name of the village and the bordering country escapes me, and to preserve the integrity of the story I will not try and guess.
T heir village was twenty miles from the border. To escape, they would have to walk to the border, and sneak past the border guards. From there they would meet up with the people whom they had paid to help them travel across land to the ocean, and across the ocean to Canada. It was a very costly proposition. Grandma and Grandpa had to give these people their entire life-savings to pay for the entire family's passage. The most dangerous part of their exodus was crossing the border, because the guards on their side, were ordered to shoot anyone caught trying to pass illegally. For this part of the journey, the family would be on their own
F inally the time came for the family to leave and they began to make preparations to make their escape. Late at night, taking only what they could carry, they left their home and quietly stole out of the village. Their journey to the border was without incident but took them five days because three of the children were still quite small. Upon arriving at the border they quietly hid in the trees on the edge of a mile-wide open area that ran along it. They planned to wait until after dark before trying to cross hoping to make it more difficult for the guards to detect them.
A s the sun set, the two adults picked up and carried the three smallest children, while the fourth child was placed between the two older children, who each held his hand. They began to run, quietly toward their freedom. Just as they reached the borderline a bright spotlight flashed on and homed-in on the two older boys running with their younger brother who was literally suspended vertically in mid air between them. A loud voice boomed over a bullhorn ordering them to, "HALT, IMMEDIATELY", but they paid no heed to the voice and continued to run.
G unshots rang out and continued even after they had crossed into the neutral country on the other side of the border and out of the guards' jurisdiction. The light also continued to follow them into the other country. By this time, it had settled on Grandma who was still running and carrying the baby. Noticing this, the eldest son let go of his two brothers and told them to "RUN". Staying back where he had let go of his brothers, the older boy began to jump, yell and wave his hands at the guards. The light settled on him as the rest of the family finally reached the protective barrier of the trees on the other side of the border. As they turned back to see where the eldest son was, several shots rang out. The ten year old boy fell to the ground, and lay very still.
T he guards went away, without checking the fallen boy because he lay in another country and out of their jurisdiction. Shortly after the guards left, Grandpa crawled out to his eldest son and dragged him back to the group huddled in the trees. The boy had been hit by one of the bullets. Grandma held him while he died. The family wept in agony at the boy's fate and with pride for his heroism. If not for him, they would have shot Grandma and the baby. They buried him, and prayed for him, before they continued on their journey to the New World.
G randma told me that there hasn't been a day go by since she arrived in Canada that she hasn't taken great delight in every single choice she has made. She took great pleasure at being allowed to take an evening job, scrubbing floors, so that Shelley's father could go to University. As she clutched at her heart, the dear lady expressed great pride in her second oldest son, who was eight when the family made their flight to freedom. He, out of gratitude for the lives they led in Canada and the horror of seeing his brother shot down so long ago enlisted and defended his new country, with his life.
G randma valued her right to vote as very dear to her heart and had never missed her chance to have "her say". She viewed voting as not only a right and a privilege, but a responsibility as well. By voting she believed she could ensure that Canada, would be run by good people, who would never have someone shot and killed for making a choice.
S helley, who had become very quiet, softly asked her Grandma, "Who was the baby you were carrying when you ran across the border, Grandma?" As Grandma caressed my friend's cheek, she replied, "The baby was your father, my dear."
Click on the Canada Goose|
and follow it back to the Library