There are billboard ads, radio spots and television commercials telling the Scots to come to Canada. Everywhere you go, you are hit in the face with an invitation to immigrate to Canada where you can make a better life for your family. My dad goes to Canada House on a day when he feels particularly vulnerable because of the erratic employment situation in Scotland, especially for Catholics. He wants to ask some simple questions about Canada, but before he can ask anyone anything, a man comes out from the back of the room and tells my father to step behind a curtain and take off his shirt so that they can take a chest X-ray. The Canada House representative then rolls a map of Canada in front of my father and asks him where he wants to live and what sort of work he would like to do.
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute, Sonny Jim! I’m only wantin’ tae fun oot aboot this place. I’m no ready tae go th’ day, like!”
Despite these protests delivered in his thick Glaswegian bur, the irony isn’t lost on my father. Scotland has no place for him. There is no work in his home country while this expansive country called Canada is spreading herself before him like an eager mistress and offering him hope, prosperity and a future that has always been denied him in Scotland. It doesn’t take my parents long to decide to give Canada a chance. The Canadian government pays our plane fares across the Atlantic, and we are off to Canada to begin a new life as a young family – my parents, BS and I. We’re away.
On the day we leave Scotland, I howl, kick and scream in my mother’s arms.
“You were not a happy bunny,” my mother’s youngest brother, Peadar, tells me years later. “You did not want to go.”
I am dressed in a pink coat that April day in 1966 at Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport. I am sixteen months old so it is doubtful that I know what is happening. Perhaps I am reacting to my parents’ trepidation as they leave Scotland, and all they know, for an unfamiliar place and new life in Canada.
My mother buys me a new pair of shoes for the plane journey and by the time we arrive in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport I have worn out their leather soles. My mother tells my father that she wants tae kill me, so she does. “She’s run up and doon the plane squealing way delight for th’ entire journey.”
“Och, leave her,” my dad says.
When we arrive in Canada, my glee continues. I run through the airport as my mother weeps from exhaustion and uncertainty, and my father seeks out a luggage trolley and transportation from the airport. My mother is left alone to cope with two toddlers and her frustration with me is apparent. A kind man, who notices my mother’s obvious distress, sweeps me up into his arms and out of harm’s way.
“That man saved yer life, lassie,” my mother says at least a thousand times. My savior is a professor at Western University in London, Ontario, and his son goes on to play for the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL during the 1980s.
We live in a brand new apartment on Hamilton Road in London, Ontario for the first three years we live in Canada. A Dominion grocery store stands behind the apartments, its neon-lit red maple leaf brandishing the side of its mocha-coloured brick structure. The Thames River flows through a forest nearby the apartments and that grocery store. Often I walk along a pathway leading from our tenement to the Dominion to shop for my mother’s messages. No one would conceive of sending a three- or four-year-old child for groceries today, but my mother routinely sends me to the Dominion with money and a note for the store clerk crumpled in my small hand, likely to get me out of her hair as much as for her produce.
There is a bird in our flat and it cannot find its way home. Its wings flutter frantically as it seeks an opening back into the world. It is caught in the gold draperies my mother hung in front of the sliding, glass patio doors. I want to help the bird return home but I don’t know how. It swoops above my head and I feel air on my face from its flapping wingspan. I squeal and run down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom, my tiny, bare feet padding the tile floor. I quietly open my parents’ bedroom door and sneak to the side of the bed my father sleeps on. I poke at his bare shoulder with my tiny fingers. He opens his big eyes and wants to know what’s wrang. I tell him there’s bird trapped in the house and he wants to fly free.
“Och,” he says. “That’s a wee bird yer mammy brought hame way her last night, so she dud. It has a broken wing.”
“Its wings are working now,” I say.
My mother hears my small voice and wants to know what the bloody hell I am doing up at this bloody hour o’ the mornin’. I back away from the sound of my mother’s rising voice and snuggle next to my dad’s bare chest. I bend low and rest my chin on his shoulder, my big, blue eyes carefully spying the blanketed mass next to my father that is my mother.
“Och,” the wean’s up,” he says. “Angela’s an early riser. Ye know that aboot her. It’s the wee bird. It’s flyin’ aboot oot there,” he tells my mother. “It’s gee’d the wean a fright.”
“Och, that’s gade,” she says. “Its wee wing cannee be broken if it’s flyin’ aboot. We’ll need tae open the doors and let it oot.”
My dad climbs from his bed. He is wearing white underpants like a bathing suit and not pajamas. He never wears pajamas. He pulls on a pair of trousers and takes my small hand in his huge one as we walk together into the living-room. The bird careens at a rapid speed above our heads.
“Do you see, dad?” I say with excitement in my voice.
“Aye, hen. I see right enough. He wants oot. I’ll need tae open th’ door and let him fly away.”
“Back to his mommy and daddy birds?” I ask.
“Aye. Back tae his mammy and daddy, hen.”
My dad unlocks the patio door to let the bird fly away, but the bird doesn’t know we are trying to help him leave and find his way home. He continues to fly above our heads.
“Go on, little bird,” I say. “Fly home.”
“Och, the wee thing’s frightened,” my dad tells me. “Just leave him, pet. He’ll fun his way oot when he’s ready.”
The cold air from outside invades the apartment and I shiver in need of a pee. My dad asks me if I am hungry and if I want some cereal and I say yes. He pulls a small, blue plastic bowl from the cupboard and fills it with Cornflakes and ice cold milk.
“Come sit up here, hen,” he says.
I climb up onto a stool next to the countertop and spot a shoe box lying on the chipped, yellow formica. The shoebox has a pink terry facecloth inside, and a small dish with water in it. There are holes pierced in the lid of the shoebox. I want to know what the box is for and my dad says it is fer the wee birdie.
“Yer mamny made it a bed tae lie in, pet, and she poked holes in the tap o’ th’ box tae let it breathe.”
“He must have pushed the lid off the box when he woke up,” I say.
“Aye, he musta,” says my dad. “Tryin’ tae fly away.”
I look up at the bird as I eat my cereal. He’s small and brown but he flies too fast for me to get a good look at him.
“What kind of bird is he?” I ask my dad.
“A wee sparrow,” my dad tells me. “Wouldnee harm a fly, sparrows wouldnee. Ye dan’t need to be afraid o’ him. ”
I don’t want to be afraid but the bird is flying quickly above my head. I feel nervous and cover my head with my hands each time he plunges past.
“Och, he’ll no touch yer wee heid,” my dad says.
The bird finally finds his way out of our apartment and escapes into the early morning April sky.
“He’s away,” my dad says. He shuts and locks the patio doors and I am relieved the bird has gone.
“Where to?” I want to know.
“Away back hame, hen,” my dad tells me. “He’s fun his way hame.”